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Josh Wilson

Customer Care

The Most Common Mistakes in Crisis Communication

Never let a serious crisis go to waste

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2022 - 13:02

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff and Chicago mayor, famously quipped that you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Few of us will face the number of crises that a big-city mayor or a presidential aide may deal with in a day, but we still need to be prepared. Otherwise, a clumsy or tone-deaf reaction may cause more damage than the event itself.

Every crisis is unique, but crisis management is always about communication. For manufacturers, the present calamity is a series of breakdowns in the global supply chain. Automakers have been hit hard, particularly those that rely on advanced semiconductors to run innovative safety features like assisted driving.

Only a few months ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk responded to a software crisis by publicly acknowledging that his company’s “full self-driving” technology was “not very good.” Shortly thereafter, Tesla announced record sales and deliveries. Other manufacturers have a lot to learn. If they want to emerge from the supply chain crisis on top, they won’t just emulate Musk’s transparency; they’ll avoid the following common mistakes.


When a crisis strikes, time is of the essence. It’s therefore critical that the crisis team knows how to best communicate not only with external sources but internal ones as well. Employees must be the company’s priority in a time of crisis because they are the communicators. The crisis team should keep an updated contact list of internal stakeholders so they can be communicated with at any time. Executives meanwhile must work hard to maintain their trust as they navigate the storm.

That said, many organizations respond incautiously. For example, in 2021, when a child was crushed beneath a Peloton treadmill, the company’s CEO and co-founder fired off a letter to customers telling them to keep their kids away from the machines. Customers and public safety advocates responded with outrage. Less than two months later, the treadmills were recalled. But Peloton’s reputation—and stock price—has yet to recover.

Make sure you take time to research the crisis and develop a clear plan for managing it. Then respond, knowing that time is not on your side.

No plan

Of course, you’ll respond much faster if a plan is already in place, and the most important part of crisis management may be having a written plan at the ready. Your crisis team should make sure all key stakeholders are aware of how the organization will handle the crisis response, and then ensure that everyone sticks to the plan. Miscommunication is often a factor in poor crisis management.

Communication also goes beyond talking to the media or tweeting. If companies don’t show empathy for their employees and customers directly, a good reputation that took years to build can be lost in a moment. Such was the case with the Chevy Bolt, GM’s answer to the hugely popular Tesla 3. When Bolts started catching fire beginning in 2017, GM first told owners not to charge the cars overnight, then not to park them in the garage, and finally not to leave them unattended within 50 feet of other cars—not an easy task. When GM dealers refused to take back the cars, furious customers found plenty of empathetic journalists who were happy to tell their horror stories to millions.

Company leaders should sit down and walk through likely crisis scenarios—and even highly unlikely ones—to avoid reputation damage. Planning is never a waste of time. Indeed, discussing how to handle a major event makes a fantastic team-building exercise.

No team in place

When developing your crisis plan, employees should pay close attention to who will be involved with your crisis team. Make sure all of the relevant stakeholders are included. Your ability to navigate a crisis successfully has everything to do with the people you place on your crisis team. It should be diverse, trustworthy, and internal.

Top down

Crises bring out the best in us, meaning that a lot of people will want to help. But when it comes to dealing with an already chaotic event, less is more. Make sure your organization delegates key responsibilities to a small group. For example, there should be one voice speaking, consistently and constantly, not several different people attempting to be the company’s face or voice. Imagine if there were only one person with one message speaking to the entire country on Covid safety, and how much more effective that message would be.

Keeping it small also means keeping it flexible. As a crisis evolves, you will have to adapt your plan accordingly. There is no one-size-fits-all crisis plan.

Going it alone

Unless you work in a controversial or public-facing industry, it’s likely you’ve never endured a publicity crisis. Most of our catastrophes are handled outside of the media’s glare, and there’s always a temptation to take care of the situation by ourselves. But a crisis isn’t the time for ego, or for a dress rehearsal. Just as you wouldn’t try to fix a legal situation without consulting a lawyer, or a medical issue without seeking the advice of a doctor, no manager should go it alone without the advice of a seasoned crisis manager.

Remember: What you think is happening may not be what is actually happening—or what is perceived to be happening. And just as small hiccups in the supply chain have mushroomed into a global manufacturing crisis, seemingly small issues—a product defect, for example, or a negative hit in the media—may have unintended and outsized consequences.


The final mistake is tackling a crisis without seeking advice from an experienced legal team. Most crisis managers aren’t lawyers, and you don’t want a communications crisis to morph into a legal one. In other words, understand the legal risks involved before acting.

Of course it’s the nature of crises to appear when least expected, like the proverbial black swan. Fallout can’t always be avoided. Often we’re faced with a choice of lesser evils. To make the correct choice, your plan should identify areas of possible backlash. It’s better to see it coming and be prepared than be caught off guard. When Musk acknowledged the shortcomings of his self-driving technology, he prevented a piling-on and shifted the narrative from an underwhelming product to an innovative company working feverishly to do better.

In the best case scenario, a crisis should become a learning experience—or, as Emanuel went on to say, “an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”


About The Author

Josh Wilson’s picture

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in political communication. A publicist at OtterPR with more than a decade of public relations experience, Wilson most recently served as a communications director in the U.S. House of Representatives. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa.