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Words are powerful and during a crisis you need to choose them particularly carefully.
Well-chosen language will help an organisation take control of the incident and show its customers it really cares.
A poor choice of words, on the other hand, can quickly escalate an incident from a crisis to a PR disaster.
Whether it is a statement as part of the initial response to the crisis or a subsequent media interview, here are seven phrases you really should avoid:
‘We apologise if…’
We all know that saying sorry is an effective part of crisis media management. The problem here is the inclusion of the word ‘if’, which turns an apology into a sorry excuse for an apology. In this context it is a weasel word which creates the impression the organisation does not really believe it has done anything wrong – it is certainly not an admission of any wrongdoing and lacks sincerity. It is an apology favoured by politicians (see most recently Boris Johnson) and when used by organisations roughly translates as ‘we think you are being oversensitive but we want this story to go away’. Similarly, avoid saying ‘we would like to apologise’ – just get on with saying sorry.
‘Mistakes were made’
Once described as the ‘king of the non-apologies’, this is an all too often used way of admitting a mistake while desperately trying to avoid taking any responsibility. Earlier this year, for example, the cycling outfit Team Sky admitted ‘mistakes were made’ around the delivery of a medical package to Sir Bradley Wiggins. A much better approach is to take your response out of the passive voice, for example ‘we made a mistake’, and ensure your organisation does not look like it is trying to dodge responsibility.
‘This will not happen again’
It can be really tempting to say something reassuringly bold during a crisis and promise that whatever has gone wrong will not happen again. The danger here is that you promise something which is difficult to live up to or makes you a hostage to fortune. You don’t need your crisis statement to tee up future embarrassment.
‘Our thoughts are with…’
When you are responding to a crisis you need to show your audience you care. Unfortunately, this regularly used phrase does the exact opposite. It lacks sincerity and compassion and sounds like a hollow, token gesture. Instead, try to put the sentiment in your own form of words, for example 'I know the whole team has been thinking about everyone involved...'.
This phrase has become a generic, automatic response when things go wrong and people and organisations feel they need to show they care. The problem is that audiences hear it so often they question whether the organisation really does care or is indeed even particularly interested in what they are talking about. Of course, in the early stages of a crisis media management incident you can be quite limited in what you can say - but the key is to develop some variations to pre-prepared lines to make them meaningful and impactful.
'Root and branch'
Whenever something goes wrong it seems to be compulsory for the media spokesperson to announce they will be launching a ‘root and branch review’. It appears to have become a key component of the crisis media management playbook, and is a particular favourite of public sector organisations. Sceptics may suggest, that unless you are a tree surgeon, it is a hollow phrase which translates as little more than ‘tinkering around the edges’. ‘Thorough’ or ‘comprehensive’ are much better alternatives.
‘I’m not sure but I would guess’
This is a phrase which takes the spokesperson in to the dangerous world of speculation and can see them lose control of a crisis. Journalists will put spokespeople under intense pressure during a crisis and will want to know more details than the organisation knows. The key for spokespeople is to stick to the facts that they know at the time.
Are there any phrases that you think we’ve missed? What are your favourite crisis phrases to hate? Let us know in the comments box below.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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