Critical incident communication: never, ever lie!

The lie by Todd Barclay that he did not secretly record office conversations of his staff has ended the political career of the one-time Clutha-Southland MP, severely embarrassed Prime Minister Bill English and damaged the National Party's reputation.

In public and in business life, a lie is invariably exposed. People leak, with good or ill intent. People talk, rumours spread and eventually the media sniff a story.

If it is an issue on a Todd Barclay scale involving lying, a cover up and the unexplained decision by the police to drop the case, the media, all of it, will go to town. This is inevitable.

Whether the scandal will seriously undermine the Party’s efforts to form a new government after the forthcoming general election remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, if a similar fiasco engulfed a company, the fallout would be much more serious and there are big lessons to be learned from this political drama.

What are they?

Let’s start with another fiasco, the one that hit United Airlines. After a video of one of their passengers being dragged screaming from the plane went viral the first statement by United CEO Munoz issued 24 hours after the incident read as follows: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

It would be hard to concoct a worst opening defence than this.

1.   It came too late. On social media it takes less than 50 minutes for a story to go round the world.

Later, Munoz made more abject apologies for United’s appalling behaviour but by then crowd had moved on. It is the first statement that has stuck in their minds.

Critical incident communication lesson one: Be ready, in advance, with a response and get it out fast. And “no comment” is not an option. Research has found that 65 per cent of people think “no comment” is an admission of guilt.

2.   “This is an upsetting event for all of us here at United.” Munzo adds that the passenger was      “disruptive and belligerent”. Munzo and United here make themselves the victim and compound  the error by attempting to smear the real victim who has been seen by millions dragged violently off a plane by United security toughs.

Critical incident communication lesson two: Do not blame the victim; it only makes the public more angry and the crisis worse. Even if a company turns out not to be the victim, the public invariably thinks it is.

3.   “I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers.” This is the ubiquitous and notorious non- apology similar to the “I apologise if my (racist, sexist, obscene) statement offended anyone, the sub-text being, “I still think what I said was OK”. The non-apology is made worse by the words “re-accommodate”. The man was not re-accommodated. He was dragged out of his seat which he had legitimately booked and suffered injuries to his jaw when he was thrown off the plane. Euphemisms covering unacceptable events or behaviour only make the public more hostile.

Critical incident communication lesson three: If you are in the wrong, apologise quickly and properly and offer wronged parties recompense as soon as possible.

4.   “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.” They add that they were “reaching out” to the passenger.

Vagaries of this kind further irritate the public. Just what are they doing to put it right? What does “reaching out” mean for the injured party?

Critical incident communication lesson four: Be as detailed and concrete as possible on what measures you are taking to make sure the mistake never happens again. If you have caused mental or physical damage, offer compensation quickly and publicly.

Given that in the course of a business lifetime, mistakes are bound to occur, measures should be taken in advance. These should include:

  • A crisis management plan with an immediate response clause. Hiding from the public only makes them madder.

  • A crisis management team ideally made up of the CEO, an in- house, or hired head of PR and legal counsel.

  • A policy of running mock crisis scenarios in order to train all staff how to behave when a real crisis rocks the company.

We have assisted many organisations to manage their critical incident and crisis communications. Contact us if you need any help or advice..