- Humanitarian aid

How to Handle Bad News in Crisis Situations

Handling bad news is always a tough challenge. Companies devote huge amounts of money and effort to building and maintaining a positive image but a single wrongly handled piece of bad news in a crisis can seriously damage relations with customers, shareholders, the media and other stakeholders for years.

One often quoted case of wrong handling of bad news is the Bhopal Gas Leak of 1984 at a Union Carbide plant in India killing at least local 3 000 people. Top management initially gave fuzzy press statements in addition to providing immediate humanitarian aid to Bhopal victims. But, the major mistake was that Union Carbide primarily addressed its global (especially U.S.) stakeholders only. This destroyed Union Carbide credibility globally and led to local hostility and still ongoing legal battles costing hundreds of millions.

Another famous case example is that of Perrier bottled water. In 1990, a laboratory in South Carolina, which used Perrier in its samples found traces of benzine. The news spread and Perrier recalled millions of bottles and half a year’s production. But, the real mistake was that the different country organisations: Perrier USA, Perrier France and Perrier UK gave different messages. Eventually, Perrier France had to later admit that its first message of only bottling lines in the USA being contaminated was wrong. Then consumers started speculating if the truth was true after all.

The funniest example of disastrous communication handling was given in 2003, on live TV by the Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who kept on saying “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” and “I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad.” even when American tanks were patrolling the neighbouring streets.

Here is a short checklist for handling bad news in crisis situations skilfully.

The Do list:

  1. Define the scope of the crisis – How great will be the effect, who will be affected, and who should best handle it. Overreaction can be as bad as under-reaction.
  2. Target your audience – Focus on two groups – those who are directly affected and those who can help resolve the situation.
  3. Be honest – the truth will come out eventually. People will deal better if they understand you are giving them the truth.
  4. Give the facts – Tell what factors led to the situation or incident. Stick to the facts. Use clear language and don’t hide behind words that no one understands.
  5. Take responsibility – if the situation can be seen as a result of your actions or lack of them, admit it.
  6. Say what actions you are taking – Communicate clearly what course of action has been taken, who is responsible for which action, and where people involved will get more information.

The Don’t list:

  1. Don’t procrastinate – the longer you wait to tell people what is going on, the more speculations will develop. Rumours can be like cockroach infestations – very difficult to get rid of.
  2. Don’t attempt to justify and explain – Avoid hype or spin that marketing communication commonly uses. It usually generates mistrust and cynical rumours.
  3. Don’t give any “Off-the-record” interviews – This can be misunderstood that you are not agreeing with the company line or other journalists accuse you of favouritism.
  4. Don’t try and shift the blame onto others.
  5. Don’t be hostile to the media – This is like waving a red flag to the raging bull. Rather than saying “No comments”, give reasons why you aren’t qualified at the moment to say anything useful.
  6. Don’t speak about things you don’t know or shouldn’t – Keep to your area of competence.

During any crisis, decision-makers and communicators act according to their own picture of a crisis. This affects how they communicate. As the crisis continues, listening becomes one of the most vital skills. By listening, you can reappraise the situation, relate to people’s feeling and react to changes. Consider how the media and others are defining the crisis and continue the communication well after the crisis is over.

Crisis communication can destroy reputations, if badly handled. But if handled skilfully, it earns the respect and support of people.