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Adding Accountability into Crisis Communication

18th March 2021

In the past ten days alone, we’ve followed three huge and controversial stories which have resulted in crisis responses and statements from The Met Police, The Queen herself and the global chain, Burger King.

Now more than ever, brands, high-profile individuals and institutions are under scrutiny from the public and press. If they are seen to do wrong in the eyes of social media, the demand for an immediate acknowledgement, a clarification, or straight-up ‘sorry’, is intense. Gone are the days when a ‘no comment’ can help bury a brand reputation crisis. A late-night statement to slip into tomorrow’s papers will no longer cut it. A spin response, which barely touches on the issue at heart, simply won’t fly.

Society today, understandably, wants an answer on how decisions were made or issues were tackled. We want it fast and we demand that it has substance. Most importantly, it’s on communications professionals to ensure that these statements are written in a way that takes accountability for the decisions and actions of the perceived ‘perpetrator’.

This week we’ve seen the Met Police blame their actions at the Clapham Common vigil on the public, essentially saying ‘you made us do it’. This language has been widely compared to that of an abuser, therefore further igniting unrest from some sections of society, especially in relation to such a sensitive and tragic case. A simpler acknowledgement that the event was not positive for any party involved, and that a full investigation would take place, could have placated the public.

The Queen’s statement, in response to the Oprah interview, came two days after it aired, giving the public, press and commentators a huge amount of time to speculate and add narrative to the issues discussed. Whilst acknowledging Meghan and Harry’s distress, the statement went on to highlight that ‘recollections may vary’. This throws doubt on the challenging party, in fact, some would see it as a gaslighting technique used to undermine the very personal account. The decision to tackle the issue privately also removes any accountability from The Crown towards the British public, removing a very public topic and not even confirming if a formal inquiry will take place.

Of course, both of these examples are in response to highly complex issues with long-term implications. Bodies, whether commercial or public, cannot go about pandering or offering knee-jerk apologies in response to press and social media push back. However, it is the responsibility of communications experts to better read the room and balance the tone to take on a level of accountability and understanding of why there is unrest, in their immediate statement, before a full defence or clarification can be put in place.

Last week, we saw Burger King face a tsunami of social media anger after its International Women’s Day campaign missed the mark. After initially defending its ‘Women Belong in the Kitchen’ tweet (and what turned out to be a huge integrated global campaign), they understood that no matter how well-intended the bigger message was, the execution was tone-deaf. Interesting points were raised by social experts, about how the number of people who would have seen the initial controversial tweet, would far outweigh those who’d then see the follow-up explanation. Therefore, setting up a huge percentage of people to miss the ‘joke’ entirely. This massive oversight was no longer defendable, and the brand did the right thing by simply saying ‘we got it wrong and we’re sorry’. Less than a week later, the dust has settled and although this BK campaign will go down in the comms history books as a disaster, the wider consumer impact will be minimal.

Crisis communications no longer sits solely in the corporate comms. field. A celeb, brand or institution can get ‘cancelled’ in a flash (the debate around this is a whole separate blog post!). Consumers care about how brands and organisations act, and it’s the job of communications experts to work together on sensitive, human responses and longer-term repair strategies.

Written by Hannah Lynch who is an Associate Director at Alfred