The Crisis Communications Dilemma: How Soon is Too Soon?

The Roseanne Situation Shows: Speed Is More Critical

If we learned any major lessons in the seemingly never-ending flow of major crisis events over the past several years, it’s that timing is more important than ever. Social media pushed the throttle well beyond the speed that cable news had reached decades ago. But as century-old newspaper guidance taught us: being first is not always best – particularly if you’re wrong.

ABC’s less than 12-hour response to the Roseanne Barr episode is the latest example of almost unheard-of reaction time to a major and very public event. But the statements made by the actress were clear, the social media eruption was swift and furious, and the network – and its advertisers – were fully aware of the stakes of moving slowly. Of course, even the network’s decision elicited blow-back, but the rapid, definitive decision and announcement were deemed not only effective, but correct.

But in more complex examples, such as numerous product recalls, autonomous driver issues that make the news, the issues, answers and communications approaches may not be as clear. For example, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 remains a mystery years after the flight was lost to radar. Not having all of the information, the airline failed to promptly communicate when the flight was initially reported missing. This problem was compounded when it continued to communicate poorly for the weeks and months that followed. Finally, a halt to the search of the airplane’s wreckage was announced and emotional closure was reached and an official communications end was declared.

The style and tone of communications following a potential crisis or major negative event also must be carefully designed. Lawsuits that garner “Breaking News” banners on cable and light up Twitter and Facebook could turn out to be proven frivolous – after a few weeks, days or even a couple of hours. Overreaction is often as damaging as waiting to act. Again, the nature of a response, in some cases simply an acknowledgement, might be the best course of action.

Cyber attacks – now routine events — can fall into a number of different categories. The latest, a warning that home routers could be already implanted with malware, generated fast and widespread coverage. A host of equipment makers advised users to reboot home and office routers and update passwords. But then, days later, many of those same manufacturers said that the restart process would not clear the malware. For now, confusion reigns.

The only universal response to a crisis: communicate and communicate often. The old adage, “tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth” remains. The speed of modern media makes it all the more important to have a crisis communications plan in place, routinely practiced and regularly updated. Ensuring you communicate only what you know to be true remains a top priority. Bottom line: have quick fingers — and don’t be wrong.