Lothery & Associates

Why Spokespeople Fail in Crisis: Not Enough SPICE!

In light of the Paula Deen crisis than continues to evolve, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what makes spokespeople fail in a crisis.

I think we’ve covered the three Ps of a crisis a number of times, so there’s no need to go into great detail there. When it comes to addressing the crisis you handle the people first, property second, and price (or cost) to repair or recover in a distant third.  Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about how to best protect your spokespeople from failing.  Usually, the problem is there’s not enough SPICE!

Sincerity: A lack of sincerity when addressing pain is readily apparent, and makes the spokesperson less desirable to viewers/listeners/readers. In fact, this can also make your stakeholders hope for your demise, as “just due” for whatever problem just occurred.

Practice of talking points: How many times have you handed your spokesperson some talking points and then pushed them in front of a microphone. Even if they only do one practice run, give them the one practice run. If there is not an eminent danger present, an extra two minutes to run through your talking points and clarify anything away from the media is well worth the time.

Interval delays: This refers to the timeliness with which your spokesperson responds. They should be handling the issue, early and often (within a framework that is reasonable for the risk and eminent danger).  If you watched the new CBS Show “Under the Dome” last night, a city councilman took it upon himself to get to the local radio station to tell listeners to stop driving their cars immediately, so they wouldn’t hit the invisible dome.  He did it quickly, with a sense of urgency and had his message repeated by the sheriff and others, several times throughout the evening.  Give updates in reasonable intervals. And If the crisis involves a threat to the public, you’ll need to provide the update that there are no updates. Information is the foundation for trust, and the key element in fear-busting.

Counsel is flawed: Too often, the spokesperson receives advice or counsel that may help them win in court, but not in the court of public opinion. When one is told to “slow drip” information assuming the full details will never come out, or worse, intentionally hide information, that just begs for a whistle blower to make a name for him or herself. Additionally, when alleged wrongdoing is in question, the spokesperson may receive counsel to hold ground and not bend or make amends, out of fear of facing lawsuits. Here’s a newsflash, we live in a litigious society. The lawsuits are coming regardless. Why not get out in front and do more than expected to earn a positive name for yourself and your brand?

Empathy is missing: Empathy does not come easily for some. Most people are conditioned to only see life through their own filter. They rarely take a moment to see things from the “victim” or “listener’s” perspective. This causes your spokesperson to lose sight of the pain someone else may be feeling, or what the affected person or persons need to hear to open their minds, and trust you will help them recover. Help your spokesperson see the entire crisis from the side of the victim. When they can “see” the pain, they can speak to it, address it, and make decisions to end or alleviate it.

Paula Deen’s handling of her crisis had a few flaws. Here’s where she lacked SPICE:

  • By the time we saw the final apology, where she cried, we had seen two others where she hadn’t. (Sincerity)
  • She recorded multiple versions of her apology. That’s practicing in public. She should have taken the time to do a few run-throughs before pressing the little red button…or at least before pressing publish.  (Practice)
  • She canceled her Today Show appearance the morning after the story broke (Interval)
  • I can’t speak to what Counsel she had, but she danced so far around the accusation of using racial slurs, that as a listener, you just wanted to say, “just say it already!” For something where you’ve admitted on legal record to using a racial slur, she should have been advised and followed through with being direct and clear. The tap dance just makes the people who support and/or sponsor you, in Dean’s case, have to drop you because they don’t see you “owning” it. (Counsel)
  • She said in a deposition that she had told racist and antisemetic  jokes in the past without knowing what would offend someone else. As a 66 year old woman from the south who lived through segregation, this one doesn’t really wash. (Empathy)

On the positive side, Deen did tackle the issue head-on and say using hateful language was unacceptable. Had she denied it, outright, there would undoubtedly be a “Mark Furman” moment in her future. She’s a well-liked personality, which will work in her favor for a comeback. America loves a comeback! She’ll likely need to lay low just long enough to let the “sting” wear off in the general public. We have not seen the last of the queen of butter, by a long shot.

UPDATE: Paula Deen has committed to return to the Today Show, June 26th, to complete the interview she recently canceled.

 

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