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How do you think the Atlanta Hawks are doing on Regret, Reform, Repay and Responsibility so far?

by Karen Kaplan

Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson did wrong, but acted right.

After Hawks management exposed a 2012 email in which Levenson made a racial slur about fans, he called a press conference and did all the right things:

  • He admitted he was wrong.
  • He apologized for his mistake.
  • He took immediate action, putting his majority share in the team up for sale.

Levenson took the best playbook in crisis communications, and played it like a fiddle. While his news now moves to the sidelines, his unsavory error will stay with him like a scarlet letter. Any future media coverage of him–even if unrelated–will include a brief description of this sad episode in sports history.

The #1 Mistake in Crisis Communications

Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry is another story. He followed the #1 mistake in crisis communication. Caught making a racist remark about a black free agent, he not only failed to apologize immediately, but he went radio silent. (As this is written, the jury is still out of his ultimate fate). The fallout of such a mistake is immeasurable for Ferry and for his team. What he put at stake is the franchise’s most important asset: its reputation. And guess what that translates into? Lots of empty seats at Philips Arena.

Like a sports team, a company can also spend generations building its reputation–only to lose it in 20 seconds.

There is only one way to mitigate the risks to your reputation. Be prepared–for anything. Over the years I’ve managed scores of crises–from running podiatrist and hospital fraud to regulatory offenses and labor disputes. Whatever the issue, my mantra is the same: if you wait until you are knee deep “in it,” then you’ve lost control of the message.The best you can hope for then is to neutralize the story. So the next time your company is assessing its propensity for crisis and risk, consider these top ten principles of crisis communications . . . .

Top 10 Principles of Crisis Communications

1. Plan for the Worst.

  • Develop a crisis plan which should include a risk assessment of what can happen, who will care, what they will need want to know, how specific crises will impact them, and what you should do to reach them with your messages.
  • Assemble a crisis communications team, representing multiple areas of expertise.
  • Create a communications structure to get information out to the team quickly and to identify and prepare key spokespeople.

2. Practice What You Have Prepared.

  • Conduct initial and periodic scenario testing, keeping your plan updated on issues and participants.
  • Work out kinks and make adjustments to the plan as you go along.

3. Establish the Facts.

The internal crisis team must gather the facts as quickly as possible in order to determine an effective response.

4. Use Consistent Messaging.

One benefit of gathering all the facts early is that messaging can be developed quickly. Once developed, the messages must remain consistent during the crisis situation, allowing the company to speak with one voice.

5. Speed Is Crucial.

Crises always unfold more rapidly than we wish. Be prepared for leaks and rumors and have an Internet strategy.

6. Get It Out; Get It Over.

No one wants a “death by a thousand cuts.” The sooner all the facts that are likely to get out are out, the sooner the crisis will be over.

7. Practice the 4 R’s (Regret, Reform, Repay, Responsibility).

Those who respond effectively to a crisis do four things: (1) express empathy for the hurt, (2) tell what they are doing to avoid a recurrence, (3) show what is being done to take care of the victims, and (4) take responsibility. These steps can be taken without increasing a company’s legal liability.

8. Fight Emotion With Emotion.

Crises are fought emotionally, not rationally. Use emotion appropriately, such as anger with those who misbehaved or sympathy for customers. More important, always base any emotional response on the facts. Finally, put a human face on your response by using an effective company spokesperson. In most cases, the absence of top management in a crisis is glaring.

9. Engage Third Parties.

Since third parties, such as government agencies, will be commenting about the crisis, companies should also engage third parties, such as local officials and financial analysts.

10. Consider All Stakeholders.

Customer, employee and supplier communications are as important as communicating with media.

Want to read more about keeping a clean company reputation and crisis communication?
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Is your growing company prepared for a data breach or potential public embarrassment? Contact us about our Crisis Preparation and Prevention audit–call 404-900-7722.