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Tell It All, Tell It First: Coming Clean During a Crisis
By: Kimberly Shrack
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It is a basic tenet of Crisis Communications 101: in the midst of a crisis, an organization needs to proactively release all information — no matter how damaging — rather than wait for it to be uncovered. This idea pervades PR best practices lists, and it looks like it will continue to. A new study has demonstrated that this concept isn’t just an old PR maxim. It’s very true, and choosing to ignore it can have unpleasant consequences
 
 A study recently published in the Public Relations Journal sought to determine what happens when an organization in crisis chooses to withhold damaging information rather than proactively release it — and then that info is later brought to light. The researchers selected various crises and compared the volume of media coverage when the news first broke against the volume generated after additional information came out. They also interviewed journalists to determine how learning an organization had withheld information affects their perceptions and reactions towards the organization.
 
According to the journalists surveyed:
  • 95% said they would be more suspicious of a company that withheld potentially damaging information.
  • 90% said knowing the organization withheld information would cause them to “dig deeper” for more incriminating information.
  • 67% said they would trust a company that proactively and immediately released damaging information more than if they or a fellow journalist were to subsequently uncover it.
    • 45% said this trust would affect the slant of their stories.
From their examination of actual crises, the researchers also found that if an organization proactively releases damaging information, the media coverage spikes the first 24–48 hours of the crisis, and then levels off. If, however, an organization withholds information and it leaks out little at a time, there will be several additional peaks of attention—perhaps even surpassing the volume of the initial coverage. The journalists interviewed echoed this sentiment, with 98% reporting that withholding potentially damaging information, even just one day after the genesis of the crisis, will prompt additional coverage, and that can cause some serious reputation damage.
 
But it gets worse. Journalists also noted that they may approach a story about an organization that gradually shared damaging information instead of proactively sharing right off the bat more aggressively and with more skepticism than if the information had been released up front.
 
In short, just ‘fess up. If you did something wrong and you know it, come clean — and fast. While you will likely not get off scot free, you will at least help to mitigate any lasting damage to your reputation.


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About the Author
Kimberly Shrack is a PR pro based in Philadelphia, specializing in writing and content development. She has worked in communication for a variety of industries including technology, travel, art, and healthcare. Follow her on Twitter at @kjshrack.
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