When an Old Crisis Resurfaces: 4 Principles for an Effective Response

Yesterday, I was driving home with a friend, and the conversation turned, as it inevitably does, to Howard Dean’s famous scream in the 2004 presidential campaign.

(Okay, it’s not really inevitable, it’s just funny to say that, and it goes to a point I’m about to make.)

And that point, to borrow from an old Douglas MacArthur phrase, is that old crises never go away.

Today, as Paula Deen launches a comeback, and as the 20-year-old allegations against Woody Allen are back in the news, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal resurfaces, that’s a fact worth addressing. For brands and their communications teams, crises are part of the permanent record. Dealing with that, though, can be tricky. It starts with the knowledge that while apologies will be demanded in the heat of the crisis—and most of the time must be offered—and forgiveness will be granted by many, mistakes are never forgotten. (In the case of Woody Allen, of course, he denies the allegations absolutely and has never apologized.)

So what to do? Here are a few essential principles.

1. Be aware that the record will include the crisis, no matter how old. This means you must plan for that inevitable resurfacing. That starts with the creation of a plan, but even more fundamentally, you need to learn from the crisis, and resolve never to repeat it. All subsequent business activities and decisions need to be made to ensure that objective. The elements of the plan, though, start with these next concepts.
2. Be open and non-defensive. You’ve acknowledged that the crisis occurred and is part of the permanent record, so there’s no point in reacting defensively if it comes back up. Don’t be emotional or angry. Don’t be indignant. If appropriate, use humor, as Howard Dean does when asked about his scream. And outline how you’ve learned and changed.
3. Have testimonials lined up. One of the best ways to reassure stakeholders when an old crisis crops back up is to have credible testimonials from well-selected supporters. It may be that you won’t want to directly address an old crisis, or respond to those who are reviving it. But having others speak for you can be very effective.
4. Deliver on your word. This is the most important. If an old crisis resurfaces, the most eloquent response you can make is to have a record in the intervening time that demonstrates that you didn’t just apologize and promise to make adjustments to get past the crisis. If you have years of a flawless track record, then that will be very persuasive in the court of public opinion.

—Tony Silber