Acting and communicating ethically should be a daily priority for any organization. However, during a crisis, the stakes grow higher, and the ethical challenges of communicating both accurately and strategically can be very complicated. For example:
- How should researchers who must provide information on a deadly virus, such as Ebola, balance facts the public needs to know against facts that might panic people unnecessarily?
- If your organization knowingly violated a law that caused a crisis, do communicators withhold that information because admitting fault would weaken your legal position?
- And what if there are uncertainties as to the causes of a crisis? Do you play up the uncertainties to reduce attention to your organization?
It can be a major challenge to find and navigate the right ethical pathway when carrying out crisis communications. Here are six guideposts:
1. Measure actions against your organization’s stated values. When in doubt about the ethics of a course of action being contemplated during a crisis, ask yourself: Does this action truly reflect our organization’s values? If the values, so often reverently declared in company literature, are mere window dressing and have not been strictly observed throughout the organization, crisis communications people will be hamstrung in their efforts to shape an ethical course. On the other hand, if company leadership consistently sets the right example by behaving and encouraging behaviors in accord with the values, you’ll be on firm footing. Use those stated values to fully evaluate and produce ethical crisis communications.
2. Listen to your gut. In addition to paying heed to the company’s stated values (or regardless of them if they’re not being observed by the organization), ask yourself this question before communicating during a crisis: Does the contemplated action feel morally right to you? If the action violates your own personal morality, or gives you pause in any way, re-think the action. Closely consult with the response team to make your reservations known and, with luck, gain consensus on an ethical course.
3. Purposely withholding information may or may not be unethical. Usually, a company that withholds pertinent crisis-related information by stonewalling, offering only selected disclosures, creating ambiguity, etc., is acting unethically. However, there may be legitimate reasons to withhold information. For example, it’s ethical to withhold the names of dead victims until the families are notified. Or, say you’re a defense contractor in the throes of a crisis. You may decide you have to withhold strategic information because it may be of use to national enemies. Or, you decide the greater good is achieved by withholding information that might unnecessarily panic the public. Whatever your reasons for knowingly withholding information, make sure they’re fully defensible and based on ethical considerations. Plan on having to explain your decision publicly at some point.
4. Don’t use uncertainties as a way to deflect attention away from your organization. There are always uncertainties during a crisis. It took four years to sort out degrees of responsibility, among BP, Halliburton and Transocean for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. True, you may not know all the facts of a crisis situation. And there may be differing perspectives on what happened. While you can acknowledge ambiguity as you support the perspective that’s most advantageous to your organization, purposely increasing ambiguity as a way to draw attention away from a perspective that harms your organization’s agenda is unethical.
5. If you’re in the wrong – apologize, and then take actions to correct the situation. If your organization has been at fault to the point where it precipitated a crisis – apologize for the wrongdoing. That’s the ethical course. But you have to really apologize. Don’t fall into the “I’m sorry you feel that way,” faux apology that’s often driven by lawyers. Sincerely apologize, but also state the actions you’re taking to correct the situation and make restitution. It’s the only way to put the crisis behind you legitimately and get back on track.
6. If you’re in the right – defend yourself. But by all means stand your ground if you’re in the right. Don’t be victimized by a blood lust among your detractors, whether it’s the media, competitors, disgruntled former workers, and so on. Fight for right. That’s ethical too.