It’s not the initial problem that will kill you. It’s always the cover up.
To be fair, that statement isn’t always true. Doing something egregiously negligent or cataclysmically stupid will almost always lead to trouble. But there is a lot of truth in the statement (which should frankly be almost a mantra for any serious crisis communications professional) that it’s the cover up that always causes bigger problems for any organisation or business with reputational problems.
Effective crisis communication depends on three things: transparency, contingency planning and speed. All three are important – take too long about a response and it looks like you’ve something to hide. Don’t do the planning and it’ll take too long to get a response out. But the absolute imperative must always be transparency.
For any organisation, credibility is a form of currency and like any currency is subject to fluctuation. Getting caught being less than open and transparent in a crisis means an organisation’s credibility doesn’t just drop, it plummets. And once credibility is lost, it is very difficult to get back.
Politics is littered with examples. Take ‘plebgate’ as an example. The lack of transparency has severely undermined the reputations of the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police. The reputation of the NHS, previously one of the most unimpugnable organisations in the world, has changed fundamentally not just because of failures in quality of care, but because of a lack of transparency that included the near persecution of whistleblowers and liberal use of confidentiality agreements that could easily be described as an effort to mask or hide the truth.
The temptation for any organisation faced with a problem will always be to construct a narrative that lessens the problem or makes it go away. At its best it’s called positive spin. At its worst, it’s called covering up the truth. But all too often it represents a house of cards that can fall as quickly as it’s been built. Openness and transparency in a crisis is a little like ripping off a plaster. It might hurt at first. But the wound then begins to heal all the more rapidly.