Written by Esther Campi Tuesday, March 27 2012
Whether I’m advising CEOs and elected officials on how to get their message across or teaching my university students the tenets of public relations, the core theme is the same. I teach the "pain and gain" rule. That is, there are two major things that motivate human beings: avoiding pain and realizing gain. These basic human instincts are meant to protect us from harm and help us get what we need. That’s why focusing on them makes for compelling story lines in persuasive writing – whether it’s the president’s State of the Union address, an anti-smoking ad or a commercial for lottery tickets.
But that first motivator, pain avoidance, is an instinct that leads us astray when it comes to crisis communications. In a crisis, everyone - from CEOs to politicians and nonprofit leaders – is tempted to avoid pain at all costs, even when a little short-term pain will mean avoiding more pain in the long run. As I tell my clients and students, resisting the pain-avoidance instinct is the first rule in managing a crisis.
Here’s how to embrace the pain:
- Ruthlessly search for the truth and be the first to report it. That makes you – not your critics – the source people trust.
- Don't rationalize or minimize. That diminishes your credibility. It’s just another form of pain avoidance.
- Don't hide your top leader from the public. Eventually, you’ll have to put him or her “out there.” The longer you wait, the more hostile and suspicious your audiences become.
When we see companies violating these rules, it's easy to scoff at how they take a bad situation and make it worse. Think BP and the oil spill. But don’t laugh too hard. In the hot seat, it could be you. It’s only human. After all, it goes against all our instincts to tell on ourselves, without rationalizing or excuses. Yet doing anything else is ultimately unproductive. Eventually the truth comes out. Hearing it directly from the source means your company might have a chance of being seen as flawed but still credible - instead of lying bandits worthy of bad press, a Congressional inquiry or even criminal charges.
I like to think of the pilot analogy. The most highly trained pilots understand that in a chaotic situation, human instincts fail us. In moments of disorientation, even the most expert pilot's brain can tell him that he’s flying up when he’s really flying down. That's why pilots are trained in these situations not to trust their instincts but to trust the plane's instruments.
In a crisis, many well-intentioned people inside an organization will offer strong opinions about how the company can protect itself by pointing the finger of responsibility elsewhere, making excuses, minimizing what has happened, releasing half-truths or saying nothing at all. The result is predictable:
The very actions you take to try to save your company’s reputation will actually fly that plane straight into the ground.
Instead, in a crisis, buck your pain-avoidance instincts. Embrace the pain. And communicate your commitment to “doing the right thing” using the “head, heart, hands” approach:
- Head – Tell people what you know as soon as you know it.
- Heart – Express emotion. Tell people how you feel about what’s happening or has happened.
- Hands – Tell people what you are doing to get answers, fix the situation and keep it from happening again.
When you’re tempted to stray from this course, trust your crisis “instruments.” And just when you think you’ve said all there is to say, say it all again.
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Esther Campi is the CEO and founder of Campi & Company, a strategic communications and public affairs consulting firm. She has spent her career as an adviser to top leaders, from Fortune 500 CEOs to U.S. senators. She also teaches public relations writing at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.