Whether in general PR and communications or in crisis communications, everything that you do is built on a foundation of trust and credibility. It does not matter what you say if you audience does not believe it. Even a single lie will destroy that credibility.
This is one of those lessons that you hopefully learned in kindergarten and can serve you very well in your professional life. When you lie, whether it is a big lie or a small lie, it permanently and irreparably damages your credibility.
This is why the first part of the Rotary Four Way Test is “Is it the truth?” When creating a set of guiding principles for business people of integrity to follow, truth was paramount to the leaders of Rotary International and should be so to you as well.
The Truth Always Comes to Light
Most people do not need an analytical explanation for why lying is a bad idea. However, there are those in business and politics who will suggest that there are times when the truth is not an option because of the consequences it would bring. Here is why that idea shortsighted and misguided.
Sooner or later, the truth always comes to light. It is impossibly naive to believe that a secret can be kept forever, especially in a corporate or political context. Each person who knows the truth has their own interests and agendas, and it is only a matter of time before one of them decides that disclosure is in their best interest.
In any scandal, a prisoner’s dilemma situation will develop in which each holder of the secret will realize that it is best if no one discloses the secret, but that if someone is going to do it, there would be a great advantage to being the first one to do so.
Once the truth comes out, the consequences for the initial misdeed come due with interest. The repercussions are almost always more severe when the public has to find out the hard way, in addition to the compounded costs of loss of credibility.
Remember, Bill Clinton was not impeached for having an affair. He was impeached for lying about it.
Errors, Lies, and Sincerity
We have become so accustomed to corporations and public figures lying to us that we simply assume it to be the way of things. Everything that they say is taken with suspicion.
In a crisis communications situation, developments may be occurring quickly enough that your information is not fully accurate when you present it.
It is okay to make a mistake, as long as you promptly own and correct it as soon as the mistake is realized. To ensure that your errors are not multiplied by deceit, consider these steps: declare uncertainty, promptly admit to errors, address all honesty concerns.
If you are not 100% sure of a fact that you are sharing, let people know that. Don’t say “I guarantee” or “I am confident” or “I am sure” if there is a chance you may need to take it back.
If you say “I am confident that no one in our office was aware of this situation,” and it comes out that someone was aware, then you have lied. The statement has two parts: “I am confident” and “no one was aware.” On the second part, you made an error and can correct it, but when you said you were confident, you were, in fact, lying. You were aware that there was a doubt and lied about your confidence.
You must never lie about anything in crisis communications. (And really, you should never lie at all.)
Instead, say “To the best of my knowledge, no one in our office was aware of this situation. We continue to investigate so we can be absolutely sure.”
Promptly Admit to Errors
In a crisis, information will be developing faster that it can be effectively managed, and you will make errors. To keep errors from being perceived as deception, you must be prompt and transparent in owning, admitting to, and correcting those errors.
In the example above, if you later find out that someone in your office did know about the situation, you must come out at the first opportunity and declare the error and the correction. “In a previous statement, I said that, to the best of my knowledge, no one in my office was aware of the situation. I have since learned that I was mistaken. We now believe that Mr. Smith may have been aware of it, and we are actively looking into this. I will share with you what we have discovered as soon as we have confirmed it.”
By maintaining your credibility, you are able to adapt to new information as you receive it, and because you are being prompt and honest about developments, the public should give you reasonable space to find the truth, which they believe you will share with them.
Address All Honesty Concerns
Your most vital resource is credibility, and that is built on the public’s belief in your honesty. Any allegations that you are lying or withholding information will undermine that credibility.
An allegation of dishonesty left unanswered can quickly metastasize into a rumor and then a belief and finally a “fact.” In the social media environment, you will have access to detractor viewpoints, so it is easy to recognize these concerns.
Once you are aware of a concern about your honesty, you should address it from your communications platforms in order to address it before it gains traction.
You should not engage in the comments or forums. Instead, you should keep all of your communications on your own platforms, maintaining your authority and integrity in your communications. You, or a supporter, may post a brief comment with a link to your official response explaining that their concerns are addressed in the linked article.
Benjamin Franklin tells us, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.“
There is no situation in crisis communications where a lie is every the correct move. It is not the right choice morally or tactically. There may be different ways to present and share the truth, but any one of them is superior to deceit.
Are you trying to get the truth out, but finding it overwhelmed by misinformation? We can help. Contact Us.