I Regret 2

First, I have bad news for those who were expecting a way to remove all the pain from a crisis. You can’t. And I’m not using the word SAIL to imply that any crisis is plain sailing.

Instead, I’m suggesting SAIL as an acronym. One of those memory-aid words made up of the initials of the things you need to consider in your organisation’s crisis communications.

Using this formula won’t in itself fix the crisis, but it will save you from making things worse by saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time or in the wrong way.

Let’s start with the S, which stands for ‘Sympathy’.

When one kid in the playground hurts another, deliberately or accidentally, it’s perfectly natural for the wronger to say sorry to the wrongee. It’s the right thing to do, it’s perfectly natural, it calms the injured feelings of the aggrieved party and allows everyone to move on.

No one wants to lose a friend over an accident. And even if the hurt was deliberate, hot blood and bad feelings will eventually cool and the parties will have to find a way of getting along. If they can’t resolve their differences themselves, a teacher may well intervene and insist on an apology and a handshake.

It’s pretty much like that in adult life. So why, when a corporation has clearly made a mistake that has hurt one or more people mentally or physic ally, do they find it so difficult to say sorry?

One possible answer is lawyers.

I studied law at Oxford and I know that on a personal level, most lawyers are perfectly kind, civilised people. However, they are trained to regard safeguarding their clients’ interests, especially their profits, as much more important than being popular.

They will therefore tend to advise against expressing sympathy, because it might be taken for an admission of guilt. And if the aggrieved party goes to court, it could be expensive.

The trouble is that this doesn’t come across as very human. The public already has a semi-folkloric view of large corporations as cold, uncaring, faceless money-making machines run by greedy fat cats. So if there’s an incident where an ordinary citizen is wronged or injured by a large corporation, and the corporation expresses either no sympathy or a grudging degree of it, it will make them unpopular.

So why should corporations care about popularity? Because customers don’t buy from people they don’t like, and shareholders don’t invest in people they don’t like. I say ‘people’ because, although we’re talking about (mostly) enormous corporations, people can only relate to other humans. So if the company doesn’t comment about something that appears to be wrong, or gives only a grudging or very formal statement, there will be negative consequences.

But what if the company genuinely feels it’s being blamed for something unfairly? Well, what’s wrong with “I can really sympathise with Mrs Smith, it must have been an awful experience … “ without saying anything about whose fault it was?

So when there’s a crisis, express sympathy and do it quickly.

Bad news spreads like wildfire on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media. And don’t forget the traditional media, who have always loved a crisis.

It’s a good idea to disseminate your reply on whatever medium spread the complaint, so if the initial damage was caused by a YouTube video, reply on YouTube, as well as everywhere else you can think of.

Next time I’ll tell you what the A stands for.