9 important lessons from working in crisis communications

From 2009 until 2012 I worked for a major telecommunications company. BlackBerry, maybe you've heard of them? 

Even though most of us are wielding iPhones now… you know from the other fruit company (not me though, Android all the way because Apple was the enemy back in those BlueBerry days.)

Back in 2009 though, BlackBerry was in its heyday. My first job interviews them was the day after their private Van Halen concert. Well, sh*t, this company sounds pretty cool.

I landed the job shortly after getting laid off for the first time from a Chicago-based management consulting company. I am grateful for everything the company did… like relocated our family of three at the time from Chicago to the Greater Toronto Area and made sure everything was smooth as almond butter. 

This was my first formal communications job. Sure, I had written tons up until this point. Proposals worth millions of dollars, emails worth even more, but they had rules and process, and it was there that I really started paying attention to word choice.

The experiences I had at BlackBerry still serve me today. When you mess up and send the wrong thing to the wrong client or when poo flies sideways and you need to make it right.

While I was working there, anytime the BlackBerry service would go down, for any wireless carrier in the world; it was my team's job to talk to the engineers, find out what happened, and turn around a perfectly polished statement. It had to happen usually within a day, and if it didn’t, it could cost the company money.


Here are 9 things I learned from my crisis communication days that could help your business:

1. Use language of possibility. For example, instead of saying, “Customers couldn’t surf the internet.” You’d say, “Customer might not have been able to use the internet.” Do you see the difference?

2. Focus on the positive. What did you learn from screwing up? In systems speak, we’d say something like, “Now that we’ve identified this, we’re working to add additional system components to make it stronger to avoid it happening in the future.”

3. Don’t use the F-word. That would be failure. Ack! How dirty is the word failure? Use this word enough, such as calling yourself the F-word,  or saying you feel like one. Keep saying that out loud enough, and people will start to believe it.

4. Keep the blame. Sometimes BlackBerry service would go down, but it was a problem on a carrier’s end. We wouldn’t say, “It’s your fault bucko—piss off.” Incorporating language of possibility and keeping it positive, we’d say something like, “Users might have experienced problem using this feature for 10 minutes and we haven't determined the source of the problem.”

5. When you don’t know something, say so. Never make something up. It’s okay just to say you don’t know.

6. Be specific. Details matter. Don’t say, “I’m a screw-up” say, “I screwed up on that response.” Put the focus on the thing, NOT on you.

7. Don’t apologize. This is a tricky one, and if you’ve truly messed up, don’t be an asshat—just say, “I’m sorry.” Instead, turn it around to be positive. Like, if you missed a deadline or something is taking longer to deliver than you promised, or you’ve taken two weeks to answer an email, try, “Thank you for your patience.” See the difference? Repeat after me, “Thank. You. For. Your. Patience.” Instead of placing focus on the F-up that you made, focus on them while you’re complimenting them for their patience.

8. Keep it short. Brevity is the key to my heart. When it comes to communicating a crisis, if you drone on and on, you’re just going to make people angrier. Keep it simple, edit out extra words ruthlessly.

9. Proofread, proofread, proofread. When you’re communicating a craptastic situation, it needs to be correct. I like to call this flawless execution. It’s one of the handful of times in my life being a perfectionist really serves me well. Print it out, have a friend review it. At BlackBerry, at least five people touched each statement. An engineer to make sure we weren’t talking out of our ass and to make sure we weren’t sharing proprietary information, a peer, and two senior folks. It had to be on time, and it had to be right. 

Words always matter. They matter even more when poo is on the ceiling. 

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