Crisis Communications: Is honesty the best policy?

When it comes to talking about tough issues, is honesty the best policy?

At BETTISON, we say “Absolutely, yes.”

But do you need to lay it all out on the table?

No, you don’t.

Honest, genuine and authentic communications are always the best policy, and they will pay big dividends from the trust-based relationships you develop and maintain by adhering to this policy.

But, consider these caveats:

  • Understand and abide by privacy rules. Some things are fundamentally private or required by law to be kept private – e.g., certain information about employees, patients, customers, clients. When considering what to disclose, be sure to fully research what your obligations are to keep certain information private.
  • Be careful – TMI can impact your credibility. While honesty and transparency are critical to maintain the trust and confidence of your stakeholders, too much information can have the opposite effect. Be careful about airing your dirty laundry – while you may need to come clean on certain issues, be strategic and thoughtful. Try asking these questions:
    • Is this information relevant – does it matter?
    • How will this help/hurt our stakeholders?
    • If we don’t share this information now, will it surface later, and will it matter later?
    • Will our stakeholders feel betrayed if we don’t share this information?
  • Certain aspects of your business are no one else’s business. Subject to applicable laws, organizations get to keep certain information to themselves. Many aspects of business are your business only (think strategic planning, goals, benchmarks for example). It becomes other people’s business when it impacts them – particularly an adverse impact. There is a legitimate interest in how an organization’s actions affect stakeholders. But there is a great deal of information that organizations get to keep to themselves.

So what do you share?

Every situation is unique, but generally speaking:

  • Honesty requires acknowledging a problem or other critical issue exists, how it came about, and what is being done to address it. Stakeholders do not need to know all the details surrounding the problem; however, there may be questions about how long this has been going on, what has been done to manage it, etc. Consider how much information you need to share to truthfully answer these sorts of questions.
  • Offer enough information to address the most pressing questions on issues that actually impact the affected stakeholders.
  • Don’t answer questions to which you don’t know the answer. If you do not know the answer, say so. Do not be tempted to hazard a guess. If it is something that you should know (e.g., how many employees work at your business), defer your response with a promise to follow up with accurate information.
  • Don’t answer hypothetical questions. If asked questions that extend to things that haven’t yet happened, best to decline answering. Stick to what is happening and what you know to be true.

If your organization has something challenging to share, or a crisis is looming or even already occurred, it’s a good idea to consult with a communications strategist and media relations expert. The things you do at the beginning of an unfolding issue lay the groundwork for a positive resolution. Alternatively, a misstep at the beginning may cause the problem to continue longer than it should.

Clients call our Twin Cities crisis communications and reputation management firm because they’ve got some tough choices to make. Bringing in an outside consultant to focus on critical messaging can provide you with the needed direction to successfully handle tough questions with honesty and integrity.

After all, if people can’t trust you to tell the truth, with what can they trust you?