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Crisis comms and expecting the unexpected – or what to do when a multi-coloured monkey with a fake penis swings by

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

We advise clients on our emergency planning and crisis communications courses to gaze at the horizon and draw up a list of bad things that could happen. And then, in the name of preparedness, to map against that list the key messages their nominated spokespeople would deliver via the media should those things happen. Saves a lot of time and effort scrabbling around for what to say and who to say it mid-crisis.

Most come up with the obvious: floods; fires; financial irregularities. Many have now added pestilence (aka Covid-19) to their Four Horsemen of the Corporate Apocalypse risk registers. But I’d wager not one organisation anywhere has a plan for what to do when their reputation takes a hit from a six foot rainbow-coloured monkey with bare breasts, buttocks and a clip on willy. I mean why bother? It’s not going to happen is it? Too off the wall…

Except that’s exactly what happened to a local authority. Said primate turned up at a reading event for children. Yes, for children! And I don’t mean randomly or mischievously gate crashing proceedings uninvited, causing red faces out of the blue as it were. I mean actually booked to appear in all its semi-naked glory. So you can imagine it caused quite a heads-must-roll kerfuffle, quickly spilling over from social to print and broadcast media. Politics being what it is the affair even trended on Twitter for a time giving the council’s head of communications pink kittens (if you’ll excuse the mixed animal metaphor).

I won’t add to the council’s embarrassment by naming it here. My purpose is simply to ask: what’s the lesson – beyond the trite expect the unexpected?

Strikes me that although the specifics of the case are so bizarre as to be wholly unpredictable, it does fit into a category that one could loosely call offence caused but not intended. The mayor having a wardrobe malfunction at a civic function might also fit into this category along with a council flyer containing a double entendre that the sub editors missed. The idea is you work out in the planning phase what to say in these kinds of cases. Then at least you have a working set of generic key messages that can be tweaked to fit the specifics. Quicker than starting from scratch.

So here are my generic key messages for OCBNI (horrible acronym alert – offence caused but not intended) situations with suggested quotes for the specific situation in italics:

  1. Say sorry swiftly. Sorry may seem to be the hardest word but it costs nothing and could save a run on your reputational stock later. “It certainly wasn’t our intention to cause offence but clearly we have and for that, of course, we are truly sorry.”
  2. Explain what the intention was. People (and monkeys) often get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes deliberately so. The story then becomes all about the stick. So remind people what the real story is. In the above case you could say something like: “Our intention was to get young people interested in reading. It didn’t go quite to plan (smile) but reading is such an important life skill and we certainly make no apology for trying really hard to encourage it.”
  3. Concede that something went wrong or, at the very least, didn’t go right. Journalists, interviewers, the baying social media mob love to push back. If you step back voluntarily there’s nothing for them to push against. “This shouldn’t have happened. We need to understand how it happened. And when we understand how it happened – even if it was just basic human error, someone not engaging their brain before booking the monkey act – we need to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
  4. Steer the interview process so you can re-iterate and, therefore, reinforce the apology but be determined to end on a positive note. “So our apologies for any offence caused but remember reading is a vital skill – quite simply people who learn to read well in childhood tend to earn more, enjoy better health and live longer. (And that definitely isn’t monkey business.)”*

*I’d be inclined to omit the bit in brackets depending on the tone of the interview/interviewer and the nature of the audience.


This article originally appeared on my LinkedIn profile but with the word penis redacted because I didn’t want to cause offence! But, of course, if I have here I am truly sorry…