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Every word matters when all are in crisis mode

photo of Kristi Piehl

“One word completely changes the meaning of a message and the emotions associated with it. Be intentional about what you say.”

—Kristi Piehl, Media Minefield

Owning a PR firm means being in the crisis business and helping clients navigate the messaging and media challenges a crisis brings. However, I never expected every one of our clients, more than 100 of them in every city across the country, would become a crisis client at the same time.

COVID-19 offered its own challenges for business leaders. But the civil unrest spurred by George Floyd’s murder is an even more complicated and difficult subject for brands to address. Our office is in Minneapolis and several of our team members and clients were directly impacted by protests and riots, so this crisis is about so much more than messaging for us, as it is for so many. It’s much deeper and rawer.

When emotions are involved in messaging, there is a higher probability for mistakes and misunderstandings. In this climate, it’s critical to understand that every word matters and that the words leaders choose carry weight and influence.

There is a big difference between a message about “George Floyd’s death” and a message about “George Floyd’s murder.” One word completely changes the meaning of a message and the emotions associated with it. Consider your audience and how different word choices could impact them. When emotions are involved, communication is typically not as intentional as it should be. Be intentional about what you say, what news sites and resources you share and what hashtags you choose.

Brands and executives who choose to avoid conflict and not make any statements about racial inequality are taking a “no comment” approach. We frequently tell our clients, “No comment is a comment.” When you hear someone say, “No comment,” you assume they are guilty or hiding something. However, it’s also important not to jump on a messaging bandwagon. The public will see through this and, rightfully, call you out. Before making any decisions about internal or external communication, it’s important the message is authentic and intentional.

In thinking about messaging related to systemic racism, think about solutions. A lot of brands are issuing statements and emailing their entire database with messages about how their executives are against racism. Frankly, this isn’t good enough. People want to know what you are doing to be part of the solution. You don’t need to have all the answers, but if you aren’t taking any meaningful action, what’s the purpose of the message or statement? It’s the old adage: Actions speak louder than words.

In the last several months, leaders have lost jobs, revenue and reputations due to tone-deaf social media posts. Executives must seek a second opinion before posting anything relating to a sensitive topic. Like it or not, your views and actions are a representation of your company. CEOs, owners, executives and leaders are brand ambassadors.

It’s also important to remember that people are human and make mistakes. The public is generally forgiving. If someone made a mistake in the past, and they want to ask for forgiveness and change course now, I encourage proactive communication. It is always best to control your message and own your story.

2020 is the year of the crisis. With expectations of a COVID-19 autumn spike and a contentious election cycle, there is no end in sight. Brands and leaders that are intentional, authentic and on message can make it through the minefield. The most important thing to remember in a time of crisis is to hold your plans loosely and prepare to pivot.

Kristi Piehl is founder and CEO of Media Minefield and a former reporter and anchor in the Midwest.


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