Since 2020, we’ve done a lot of crisis communication work. I mean, a lot. During the shutdown, it was almost exclusively related to things individuals had done wrong in a contentious workplace flooded with fear, uncertainty, and instability. Today, it has progressed to working with organizations that are dealing with larger crises such as shootings, fires, and natural disasters. 

There is one thing we continue to come back to, time and time again: the importance of shaking hands and kissing babies.

This cannot be underlined more emphatically. Yes, saying “I’m sorry” is still the first thing you should do, but saying it empathetically to the humans who are affected, face-to-face has to happen at the same time. 

It’s so simple, and yet, the amount of convincing it takes to get executives to handle a crisis in this way is astounding. There are lots of feelings and emotions wrapped up in a crisis—and often a bit of ego, too. Those things combined make it extremely difficult for humans to say, “I’m sorry.” 

And yet, it’s probably the most effective tactic when it comes to a crisis.

Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

When doing a final debrief with a crisis communication client last year, I asked them what they learned from the experience we had just shared. The marketing associate chimed in and said, “Always talk to the community first. Before anyone else.”

I was so proud of her response, I beamed. Part of my being so proud is that it was a real struggle to get them to talk to the community. They’d had a crisis that didn’t affect the community, but the less they talked about it, the more worried their neighbors became. They started to wonder if the client was hiding something—and got pretty vocal about it.

They weren’t, of course, hiding anything, but their lack of communication made them look guilty. So I loved that the youngest member of the team learned that that was the most important thing she should take into the next crisis she encounters during her career.

Shaking hands and kissing babies. 

It’s so simple, yet almost no one does it. Remember when the BP former CEO, Tony Hayward,  whined that he just wanted to get his life back after one of the biggest oil spills on record? All he cared about was going back to normal—not about what this meant for Americans who lived near the oil spill or those who count on ocean life for their livelihood. I”m sure they wanted their lives back, too.

Empathy signals high emotional intelligence, which is not common for all humans—as is evidenced by Hayward making it all about himself. 

We’ve seen this situation in many of our client crises, too. People think they’re empathizing by saying, “I want my life back, too,” but it does the complete opposite. 

Say I’m Sorry In Person

Part of this is that we see CEOs as being removed from reality. Tony Hayward wanted to get back to his jet-setting, yacht life where he could live on his gazillion-dollar salary and not have to worry about the people whose lives were completely upended because of something his company had done. 

We talk with our clients about this all the time. Yes, you are struggling, and this is stressful, but it’s nothing compared to what the people affected by this are going through. As part of sympathizing with them, you cannot discuss how stressful this is for you. Shake hands. Kiss babies. Listen. Don’t say anything more than, “I am so sorry,” and repeat the approved messages. 

A few years ago, a security guard at a client’s plant shot and killed an employee as he was coming back from dinner break. When I got the phone call from the CEO at 2 a.m., he said, “What should I do?” I told him to get the first flight out and get to that plant as soon as humanly possible. He did—and he met with the employee’s family and with his team. Then he held an all-hands and grieved with the team.

While it was not a fun experience, it was the absolute right thing to do—and he is still praised by his employees for it. 

Saying I’m sorry in person will go much further than releasing a statement or holding a news conference. 

Start to Predict an Eventual Crisis

Too often, an organization is not prepared for a crisis, and when it happens (and it will happen), the leaders panic and call in the comms team at 2:00 in the morning or over a weekend or a holiday (we once unexpectedly lost the CEO of a client’s business on Thanksgiving—that was fun). 

But the best way to survive a crisis, to know exactly what to do, and to put ego aside and not be defensive is to watch for it. Of course, there will be instances you can’t predict—like a natural disaster or a sudden death—but you can be prepared for those things.

Last week, I opened the Florida Public Relations Association conference with a keynote about the PESO Model™ (of course). At a reception the evening before, I met a comms professional who told me a story about how he worked with an executive for years to get him to see forthcoming crises. After working together for three years, he said the CEO was almost better at predicting a crisis than he was. He had taught his client how to prepare, mitigate damage, and plan efficiently for recovery.

Crisis Communication Planning

This is the first phase of crisis communication management: watching for early warning signs and signal detection. What kind of crisis communication plan do you have for the unexpected—natural disasters, sudden death, active shooter—and for the expected—unhappy customer, bad behavior by an employee, a negative social media campaign. 

Of course, you can’t predict when those things might happen, but you can develop a list of every potential crisis—and craft a plan around each. We like to tier the examples:

  • Tier 1 is for the worst possible crisis ever; 
  • Tier 2 for it’s pretty bad, but we can get through it; and 
  • Tier 3 for this sucks, but it’ll only suck for a few days as we work to get things back to normal.

Then we try to predict what would cause Tier 3 to become Tier 2 and Tier 2 to become Tier 1. In this particular exercise, you become strategic and take out the emotion. Knowing it could happen and how you’ll react is more than half the battle. 

Then, when a crisis does hit, how you handle it is critical. If you’ve done the work to plan for and expect a crisis, and you’re ready to say I’m sorry while shaking hands and kissing babies, you’ll be in a good spot to progress to recovery.

But the longer it takes you to respond, the more it will cost you in reputation and dollars. Imagine if Tony Hayward had immediately flown to the Gulf Coast and spent time talking with the people there and discussing how he and his team were going to help with clean up and bring things back to normal. I’m willing to bet he wouldn’t have lost his job three weeks later.

Crisis Communication Tenets

Outside of being prepared and how you react, one of your most important goals in managing a crisis will be to recoup time, resources, revenue, and maybe even reputation. Business recovery should be your main focus once you get through the initial few days of the crisis.

Crisis communication planning and management can feel overwhelming, but it really does come down to these three tenets:

  1. Say “I’m sorry” (and mean it)
  2. Shake hands and kiss babies
  3. Progress to recovery

If you focus on those three things, you’ll always weather a crisis. 

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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