Crisis Communications: Why Common Sense Is Often Wrong

I have a soft spot for people who make smart counterarguments that challenge conventional wisdom.

I spotted one such piece by North Carolina-based crisis coach Rick Amme recently on PR Daily. In his piece, Rick argues that nine popular pieces of advice often espoused by media trainers aren’t right – or more precisely, aren’t always right.

Rick takes direct aim at some of the advice I’ve offered on this blog, questioning the wisdom of conventionally accepted gems such as, “never say no comment.” So why am I promoting Rick’s work when it questions my own? Because he’s right.

(But so am I.)

Rick’s main point isn’t that conventional wisdom doesn’t work, but that there are times it doesn’t. And that’s an important point all communicators should remember. “Common sense” rules may hold 95 percent of the time – but if you’re caught in a crisis that demands a slightly different response, you’ll still need to exercise your judgment to make sure conventional wisdom applies to your situation.

Here are three of Rick’s nine points, along with my responses:

1. “Speed saves.” Sometimes it’s best to do nothing. Overreactions can call unnecessary attention to a situation. The key is to not necessarily act fast, but decide fast.

That’s an important point, and I like the way he phrased it. I’ve been involved in some social media “crises” that bubbled just beneath the surface but never fully erupted. In those cases, constant monitoring was the right approach rather than fast reactions that could have helped them erupt.

6. “Have great talking points.” You should first develop answers to the worst-case questions people will likely ask, if time permits. Yes, talking points give important focus to comments, but your credibility rests on your ability to answer tough, legitimate questions.

I disagree with Rick on this point, because I think he presents a bit of a false choice. Talking points and answering tough, legitimate questions don’t have to be incompatible. In fact, I’d argue that good talking points in a crisis do answer some of the toughest questions head on. It’s quite possible that Rick is arguing here against bad, or overly-scripted talking points, not talking points in general.

8. “Never say ‘no comment.'” Well, yes, don’t say those words, but there are situations when it is to your benefit not to say anything. Just be sure you have thought through the pros and cons with your team to ensure this is the right tactic. Usually it is not.

We’re on the same page on this one. I wrote an article in 2010 that argued that although you should never use the phrase “no comment,” you can “comment without commenting” to survive questions about topics you shouldn’t be speaking about.

You can read the full article on PR Daily.

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