Escaping through the backdoor is a common reaction when criticism arises. Many people think that they can get through the crisis best by just waiting till the storm is over – and hoping that there would not be great losses afterwards. That seems to be the easiest way to deal with negative headlines. The recent debate about the German soccer star Mesut Özil, who stepped back from his team because of a photo scandal, is a prime example of communications crisis management gone wrong. Only those who communicate purposefully and do not hide get the chance to influence the public opinion in a positive way and avoid economic losses in the aftermath. Experience has shown that, many times, a shitstorm is not caused by the mistake itself but by the behavior afterwards.
Real-time reaction, sincerity, truth – these are the three pillars of good crisis communications and the best weapons against predominant public criticism. Those who remain silent after an incident and try to find a suitable strategy behind closed doors might be suspected of concealing something. Speculation and half-true theories might arise and quickly result in a shitstorm. “There are countless examples of failed crisis communication. The Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015, the Love Parade disaster in Duisburg (Germany) in 2010 or the debate about the resigned German soccer international Mesut Özil in 2018 have one thing in common: all three events ended in a PR disaster which could have been avoided”, explains Nikolaus Pjeta, Managing Partner of Yield PR. “The steps immediately taken after an incident are crucial. A first report to the public should be stated at the latest a few hours later”, says the communications professional. That way one shows that the error has been recognized and someone is already working on a solution to the problem.
Good crisis communication starts way before the crisis
Industrial accidents, production faults, strikes or human error can lead to public criticism and cause considerable damage. For that reason companies should be prepared for emergencies and precociously work on an appropriate strategy. “When a crisis occurs, communication must be clear, understandable and, above all, timely. Moreover, the public tends to draw the negative emotions to one person. Therefore, it must be clear in advance who will be the face of the crisis”, Pjeta continues. Crisis communication should not only get you through the crisis, but strengthen your position for the future.
You might pay a high price for poor communications
If no strategy is available in case of an emergency you might have to deal with the consequences. Declining sales, the loss of good employees or lack of creditworthiness are part of the collateral damage of a genuine crisis. Listed companies are also obliged to distribute an ad hoc message when the stock market price is about to collapse. If the Financial Supervisory Authority thinks that one has acted too late, further complaints of investors will follow soon. “The VW scandal is indeed an excellent bad example”, says Pjeta. “In addition to the loss of image and the slump in the share price, the group was facing fines, claims for damages and legal fees estimated at 20 billion euros. As a multi-billion-euro group, VW has now managed to get sales and shares back on track; smaller companies are usually less lucky. Another example is the German soccer player Özil (he was criticized for meeting the turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the world cup in Russia and afterwards reproached the German football association and media with racism and lack of respect), who finally decided to resign.”
In real life, a crisis is an extremely emotional matter that often cannot be solved rationally. Only those who regain the sympathy of their steakholders can avoid a major shitstorm. The ones to regain sympathy can be employees, customers or even politicians. The choice of the person who speaks to the press and interest groups is crucial. “The Munich police spokesman Marcus da Gloria Martins offered a prime example of good communications after the shooting in 2016. Clear information that is presented authentically makes the population feel secure – one can identify with the speaker. The CEO of a company is therefore not always the best choice – often there are employees or people close to a company who are more suitable. Media coaching can be very helpful in this phase,” concludes Pjeta.