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Crisis Communication

The IMM Graduate School | Crisis CommunicationIt’s high time to revise the tried-and-tested, three-pronged approach to succinct communications to include a fourth message: the inevitability of the sh*t hitting the fan. Crisis comms expert Janine Lazarus rolls out the strategy.

During workshops on key message development, I always beat on about only having three key messages at hand to carry you through any form of communication – particularly when it means having to convey something unpalatable. Anything more than that tends to get lost in the bubbling maelstrom of information we have to wade through each day.

Think of it, I tell my delegates, as the three key messages we arrive unceremoniously into, in this rather complex world of ours: we are born, we pay taxes, and then we die. They generally titter a tad uncomfortably but seem to latch onto the general idea. The more economical and efficient your message, the less likely you are to land knee-deep in the brown stuff, trying to fruitlessly explain how you didn’t mean for your message to be misconstrued.

However, it’s high time to revise this tried-and-tested, three-pronged approach to succinct communication to include a fourth message: the inevitability of the sh*t hitting the fan. I mean let’s face it: I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t gone through a crisis at some point in their lives.

In fact, if this special soul exists somewhere on the planet, someone should summon the media forthwith!

Crises are a dime a dozen. Open a newspaper (do people still read these things…?), hop online, or tune in to your favourite radio station or television channel, and there will be some sort of investigation, commission of inquiry, think tank – take your pick.

State capture is still leading the race, as is wholescale corruption. Vote rigging will inevitably be next, along with the plunging share price, the brutality of yet another sexual assault, or news of the latest in a series of self-made clerics living the life of Riley while their doting followers are forced to munch on the lawn.

And that’s just the first three pages of today’s weekend newspaper (because, yes – I still read them).

The hand grenade of social media

Toss the hand grenade of social media into the mix, and the inevitable sh*tstorm morphs into a veritable tornado, bringing down corporate reputations and more often than not, ending careers. It’s almost impossible to recover when the madness of instant messaging kicks into gear.

I’ve decided purposefully to keep away from politics as we could be here for ages, and instead focus on a few well-known brands that have landed themselves in hot water. Take Woolworths – or as coined by social media: Woolworse.

Hot on the heels of engaging international experts in the aftermath of the furore around the retail giant’s appropriation of the style and ethos of the Frankies retro drinks brand, it found itself again in the unflattering spotlight of the media after being accused of stealing a private designer’s hummingbird design for scatter cushions.

Then a locally produced baby carrier design made for the third allegation that the company makes it a habit of stealing intellectual property. This time, in the face of huge public embarrassment, Woolworths found itself apologetically begging and scraping at the feet of Cape Town-based independent designer Shannon MacLaughlin.

The result: the immediate withdrawal from sale of its supposedly in-house product (read: made in China) that was remarkably similar to the entrepreneur’s baby carrier design.

I found the ‘unreserved’ apology for what the retailer described as a “failure of internal processes” pathetic, to say the least.

Also in poor taste – pun intended – was retail giant Coca-Cola having to slam the brakes on its nationwide Share a Coke activation as a result of one of its cans going out with the Xitsonga word Xitombo (vagina) printed on it. What delicious fodder for social media!

The incident rightfully so offended the Tsonga community and the public at large, that it actually made a mockery of the original spirit of the Coca-Cola campaign, which was about inclusivity, respecting diversity and understanding. Yeah, right.

While on the subject of inclusivity, pen manufacturer Bic had to hastily pull a South African Women’s Day advert that was branded sexist and offensive to women.

Penned alongside a picture of a woman dressed in a power suit, were the words: “Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss.”

Full marks to one of Bic’s rivals for a post that was deemed way less offensive. “Look how you want. Act how you want. Think how you want. Work like a BOSS.”

It’s not an easy task to think of a household brand that has escaped unscathed from the fiasco of instant messaging. Wait… there is one.

South Africa’s oldest online retailer, NetFlorist, came under fire for its late delivery of last month’s Valentine’s Day orders. Social media was flooded with pictures of browning bouquets, melted chocolates and personalised gifts peppered with spelling errors.

Managing director Ryan Bacher wasted no time in posting an apology on the same social media platform his brand was lambasted on. He said a combination of load shedding and rain in Gauteng created “the perfect storm”. (I wonder who wrote his copy…?).

But he went a step further. “We should have prepared better for this, we didn’t and we let our customers down.” Bacher then said that the brand would do “whatever we need to make this right”.

Full marks for the quick sticks apology? Definitely not, according to NetFlorist customer, Angelique McKenzie. “I ordered a Valentine’s gift for my mother for whom this was the first Valentine’s Day without my father who passed away in December.

“You have not delivered it.”


There really is no magic bullet to enable you to neatly sidestep a crisis and move on with your life. (If I had invented one, I’d be lying on one of five glorious islands I own sipping on my umpteenth chilled margarita of the afternoon).

But there is a tried-and-tested methodology to mitigate the impact of the crisis, which should leave you with something of an intact reputation.

Before you even pause to think about throwing an evasive “no comment” or “I’m not at liberty to speak” type of statement, understand that making no comment is louder than any comment you will ever make. Ducking and diving is simply not the way to go. It’s career suicide.

Try this three-pronged plan:

Step 1: Connect with the issue

Yes, really connect. No stiff upper lip. We are not a British colony. Show empathy and connect with the issue. Those who it impacts are human beings. However, once you’ve connected, move right along. You don’t want the negative message to resonate any more than necessary with your audience.

Step 2: Throw back to a previous positive track record. (You do have one, right…?)

Perhaps this has never happened in all your years in business. It’s a freak accident, a once off.

Step 3: Move forward. Make it crystal clear what you are going to do about it. I’m talking specifics. Refrain from talking about putting measures in place, unless you are a tailor.