3 Ways to Find Opportunity in Crisis

From business books to blogs, there are countless references to the Chinese word for “crisis” and its two distinct characters, wéi and , individually representing “danger” and “opportunity.” President John F. Kennedy popularized this notion in 1959, and the rest is linguistic history.

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Or linguistic anarchy, depending on how well you know Mandarin. Online, you can find just as many rants about the second character not really meaning “opportunity” -- that it connotes many things, including “incipient moment” as well as “resourcefulness” and “quick-witted.” Perhaps begrudgingly, these linguists admit it does happen to be one of two characters in the Chinese word for “opportunity.”

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a good linguistic argument. I’ve been known to get on a soap box about apostrophes and the Oxford comma (don’t get me started).

But when we’re faced with a crisis at work, I want our clients to embrace President Kennedy’s version of the crisis/opportunity story. Keeping your eye on the positive, even in moments that may be negative, helps you stay focused on what’s important. And it may even net out positive for your brand.

There are three ways to squeak opportunity from crisis communications scenarios:

  1. Reinforce your organization’s mission and core values
    At the beginning of your crisis communications plan, document your Mission Statement and Core Values. Even print them out and post them at your desk. You should know why everyone in your organization comes to work every day, and what you stand for.

    As you work through a crisis, it’s the most important time to be what you claim to be. Keep your values in mind as you make decisions to solve the problem at hand. And as you communicate, reflect your mission and core values in your messages.

    While all eyes are on you, it’s OK to say, “This situation is not consistent with our values, it’s unacceptable to us, and we are working to fix it.” Fed-Ex did a great job of this during the 2011 holiday season, turning a negative viral video into an opportunity to genuinely apologize and reiterate their corporate values and standards.  
  2. Maintain your brand’s tone of voice
    Always be respectful of your audience, especially in moments of crisis. But now may not be the time to change your brand’s tone of voice. Maintaining a consistent, appropriate attitude while you’re remaining true to your mission and core values (see #1) will help customers stay connected.

    Mobile company O2’s response to a widespread network outage is a perfect example of staying true to your brand attitude -- and ultimately coming across as more genuine. In a blog on Wired.uk.co, Wunderman social media pros gushed, “O2 took everyone by surprise, not least its most voracious critics, by responding in the most open, honest and above all human way possible.”

    Contrast O2’s success with Progressive’s failure for even more clarity about the importance of maintaining a brand’s tone of voice. Nothing says “not genuine” like Flo tweeting the same legal-infused language over and over and over. Rely on attorneys for legal advice, and heed PR professionals when communicating in a crisis.

  3. Educate audiences on complicated topics
    Complicated crises are the most dangerous to an organization’s reputation, because most audiences are unfamiliar with the facts, and educating them takes time and patience –- neither of which we have much of when we’re neck-deep dealing with the issue itself. In these situations, a few concise key messages just won’t cut it.

    As all eyes are on you, embrace the opportunity to educate. As I type, Apple is in the throes of legal wrangling with the FBI and is fighting a demand to create software to help unlock an iPhone tied to a terrorist act. So though we can’t assess how it will all turn out, we can watch as leadership there takes the time to educate consumers on the issue. From its open letter to Apple customers to consistent messaging from CEO Tim Cook in media interviews, Apple is doing a fantastic job explaining the complexities of the request and of the technology behind the FBI’s request.

Regardless of how you choose to view the characters in the word wéijī, you should embrace the idea of putting your best face forward when facing an organizational and communications crisis. A grounded, deliberate, and genuine approach will not only help mitigate the bad news, it may even net out positive in some ways.

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Topics: Crisis Communications


Posted by Barbara Pierce
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