Crisis Communications 101: When Saying “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

Even if you haven’t experienced a crisis situation first-hand while working for an organization, you have hopefully at least read your company’s “Crisis Management Plan.” And, by “read” I meant, “briefly skimmed” or looked for it and couldn’t find one. Either way, the important thing to note here is that every organization should have a plan to follow when the worst-case scenario happens.

The lab in Iowa has inadvertently purchased supplies from a rogue nation on the United Nations’ sanctioned country list? No problem! Just refer to chapter 2.1.3 of the crisis management plan and you will find the correct response: “I am truly sorry for the actions that have taken place and am spending diligent time to work through the ramifications of those actions.”

Good, but is saying “sorry” enough? Hardly.

The artful apology must be followed by a stated course of action for an effective crisis management plan to be successful. When dealing with your next crisis, remember to be upfront when communicating the situation, and provide the public with as much information as you can, relaying new facts as you figure it out. This can help prevent rumors from spreading and keep stakeholders assured in the stability of the organization.

Continuously state the action that you are going to take to solve the problem, show the act of taking that action as it is performed, and utilize as many creative platforms as possible (BP actually did a great job of this during the Gulf Coast oil spill after some early missteps).

Never, ever downplay the magnitude or severity of the crisis or make up the facts. If you don’t know, then you don’t know. Say so, and do not speculate. Above all else, do not deflect blame of responsibility for what is happening. If you know it isn’t your fault, work out the facts behind closed doors. And eventually bring them to light.

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson responded to the deliberate product tampering and cyanide poisoning of Tylenol products with apology, action and communication. It was a long road and the company spent hundreds of millions of dollars in their management efforts. They apologized, stated their action plan, and then followed through with it until the very end. In the end, they never even had to rebrand their product.

So, after you’re done saying that you’re sorry, remember that a plan is important, but only if it is executed.