Why are so many companies poor at communications during a crisis? After all, blue-chip companies routinely prepare crisis management plans and bring in external communications “experts”. These consultants run crisis simulations with the clients. This is supposed to help them plan for the unplannable.
But crisis simulations are frequently a waste of time, because they just wheel out the same tired examples. For it to be a worthwhile exercise, crisis training has to be bespoke.
Too often, simulations make employees play-act simplistic scenarios that simply aren’t going to be the ones that actually happen. Employees hate taking part in these stilted role-playing exercises, because they believe their time is being wasted. They react in the same way as when they are forced to sit through idiotic training sessions in which some facilitator has decided that they should play a game that involves clapping, or high-fiving their colleagues, or musical chairs.
Most of the crisis communications that is taught is so fiddly and complicated and irrelevant that by the time a crisis occurs, employees can’t remember what they are supposed to do anyway. And often the material presented is simply lifted wholesale from crisis comms books.
The books are often dry and academic, presenting a range of theoretical models about how crisis management should be conducted, none of which is based on what occurs in the real world. Some are just trite: one major book gives such insightful advice such as “Say what you mean to say” and reminds people to say “goodbye” at the end of a phone conversation.
Companies are given such hackneyed and over-simplistic advice as “be authentic and you’ll be fine”. Well, you know what, Tony Hayward of BP was being “authentic” when, in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he told the media that “I’d like my life back”. That cost him his job and damaged BP’s reputation. And, ironically, BP was actually doing a fantastic job cleaning up an oil spill.
Most companies – following the advice they’ve learned on banal crisis simulations – still allow media storms to engulf them. When you next see a big company have a PR disaster after a crisis, just bear in mind that the company will, most likely, have done a crisis simulation. And it’s not surprising they do badly, because what mostly is taught in crisis simulations is reactive and insincere – such as trying to respond to a torrent of abuse by issuing a statement that no one believes or trusts.
There is simply no way to come out of a crisis well by following such bad advice.