Posted by: lmbshepard | May 6, 2012

Come on, spill it!

I came across an interesting article on PR Daily that challenged some of the basic practices of crisis communication. The article, Nine popular crisis responses that don’t always work, challenged the most oft given advise to anyone in a crisis situation.

I agree that not every crisis situation can be managed from a list of best practices. However, I disagree with one of the practices the article challenged, which is the notion of withholding information. Or as the article’s author wrote, “sometimes it’s better to sit back and wait to see whether anyone is paying attention than hang the dirty laundry out for all to see.”

Not coming clean or hoping an enterprising reporter isn’t going to find your dirty laundry is a dangerous strategy. A recent article in the Public Relations Journal stated that “95 percent of journalists surveyed said they would be more suspicious of a company if they found out that the company had withheld critical information, or tried to cover it up, than if the company had released the information proactively” (Robertson, 2012).  From the same study, 98 percent of journalists surveyed say “the fact that the company had tried to withhold information would prompt additional coverage.”

Every crisis is different but what do you think? Release information proactively or release information only as deemed necessary?


  1. How much info to share and when to share it is a dilemma that many communicators often face. We, as the communication experts, are positioned to take a consultative approach to educating the organization on how much to share and when. Before any action is taken, it is best to determine your communication objectives based on the situation at hand. Remember to always revert back to what your objectives are which will help you from going “off message.”

    For example, if an environmental advocacy group recently criticized your organization in the media for excessively polluting a local river, it is in your organization’s best interest to assess the situation, understand the claims against you, determine your message strategy, and address the situation head on.

    If the claims are true, then it may be to your organization’s best interest to admit there are improvements that your organization can make and tell the public that you are taking immediate action to address these concerns. Some may say this is sharing too much information and others would argue that your organization would gain credibility by being transparent.

    In this situation, it would be appropriate for your organization to underscore the fact that your organization will continue to use the highest environmental safety standards and use a tangible example that demonstrates this claim. If your organization were to dodge the truth and it later gets discovered that you were covering up your “dirty laundry,” the repercussions could be detrimental to your reputation and credibility for years ahead.

  2. Good points.

    One of the most difficult aspects of our jobs is to work with people who believe any information is too much information. Which brings us to an interesting intersection with our leadership class. How long can a communicator stay in an organization where the default position is to never share anything other than the organization’s approved “good news” or “wins” on any given day?

  3. Laura, I agree that being proactive in a crisis situation is probably the best course of action. In the court of public opinion, perception is reality. If you or your organization is perceived to be hiding something, or anything less than honest, you will lose credibility at a time when you need it the most. Once you’ve lost credibility, your situation is infinitely worse than it would have been if you were honest in the first place. Not only are you trying to navigate through a crisis, but you are also tasked with regaining credibility.

    One thing to consider is that organizational structures often hinder a communicator’s ability to react quickly to unfolding situations. Response time can lag in large bureaucratic organizations because of the need to go through multiple channels to authorize messages. As seen with the Carnival Cruiseline case, responses can also suffer when a parent company is involved.

    Responding to crisis can be a matter of being honest to yourself and being honest to the public, so I think it can become an issue of preserving personal credibility if the organization has decided to be less than honest.

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