Panic. That’s what most people do when something bad happens. Especially if it’s their fault.
But as a communicator, you’re not allowed to panic. You are the voice of reason. You are the steerer of conversations. You are the protector of public image. You do not panic.
Hahahahahahaha. Just kidding. Of course you panic, because you’re human. And one of the things we’re most tempted to do when we panic — especially if it could save face — is lie.
But you should never, ever consider lying as an option in a crisis situation, no matter how attractive the prospect may be. (In case you’re wondering, this includes lying by omission.) Aside from the fact that PRSA has a Code of Ethics that says you shouldn’t, here’s why…
1. The more you lie, the more you have to remember.
Sometimes a lie comes to us so fast, it seems like we’re supposed to use it. How else could such a plausible fabrication come to mind so quickly? In fact, some PR students think you’re supposed to lie.
But the trouble with lies is that they don’t have a backstory. So you have to create one. Then you end up spending all this energy on making up details and false memories, just to make your story believable. And more likely than not, you’ll end up tripping over some of these details down the road. Not to mention that if you ask an entire team to regurgitate phony minutiae, you’re asking for trouble. Will they all remember the same story? Are they all capable of reciting the same details?
The point here is that, while it may be difficult to disclose in the face of a disaster, the truth is much easier to remember.
2. Lying distracts you from the real issue.
Let’s say you’re a trustworthy organization that isn’t up to anything shady. You do your best to serve your customer’s needs. Then one day some of your customers get burned (physiologically or metaphorically, I suppose it doesn’t matter) due to an oversight on your part. You respond to the crisis by lying.
Which effort do you think you’ll put the most energy toward in the ensuing days? Supporting the lie, or fixing the problem that necessitated the lie? If your customers are your primary concern, tell them the truth. Yes, it could get ugly. But it’s a lot less ugly than the alternative.
Of course, these two points lead up to the fact that…
3. Someone will find out eventually.
It might take a while. It could take years. Decades, even. But someone will find out. Take David Tovar, Wal-Mart’s former vice president of communications, for example. After nearly a decade with the company, Tovar was in line for a senior VP position when a background check turned up the fact that he hadn’t actually graduated from college. Walked across the stage at the ceremony, yes. Received an actual diploma? No.
Suddenly, that promotion was gone. And Tovar was gone. Apparently he’s earned his degree since then. But what about his credibility in his field? Has he earned that back? My guess is that he hasn’t.
Imagine this sort of discovery on a wider scale. If your organization was caught in a lie, how long would it take you to earn back the trust of your customers? Your investors or stakeholders? Not to mention the fines that could be generated as a result.
Bottom line: Everybody makes mistakes. By and large, the public is willing to recognize this fact and forgive a forthcoming business. They’re a lot less forgiving of businesses that lie to avoid bad press or legal action. Lying isn’t worth the risk.