The former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once referred to ‘unknown unknowns’ when responding to a question at a news briefing about the link between the government of Iraq and the potential supply of Weapons of Mass Destruction to terrorist groups. Although much ridiculed at the time (less so now) it’s a principle that can be applied to crisis communications.

Here’s what Rumsfeld actually said in February 2002.

“.. as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” [to see video click here]

I wonder what he would have made of the United Airlines incident from 2017 when a passenger was dragged by staff from a plane because he refused to move from his seat after being double-booked? This disturbing action  was filmed on a phone and posted on social media before you could say “crisis management.”

Whatever training did or didn’t happen prior to the incident, the bottom line is that it was a PR disaster and that within a matter of hours their shares had slipped by 1% and $250 million had been wiped off their market value – this AFTER the CEO had apologized ! (click CNN business from 2017).

Learning from Donald

When your organization is updating its risk register or stress-testing its crisis communications plan it’s important to not only test the so-called ‘known unknowns’ but also the ‘unknowns unknowns’.

Seeing how your senior executives or middle managers respond to a mock crisis in an  intensive media workshop can be one of the most instructive lessons you’re likely to learn. How do they respond when called on to make important decisions quickly under pressure with little or no information about an incident with which they are unfamiliar and with reporters waiting with cameras and microphones at the ready?

When the UA CEO made his first public statement on the matter (trying to play down the incident) he only succeeded in making a bad situation even worse. Then he was forced to make a complete retraction and actually apologize but by then it was too late and the company just came over as disorganized and chaotic.

Not the kind of company you’d necessarily want to book a flight with.

Yet this is all stuff that people can be trained in as part of a comprehensive media training and crisis communications package.

It’s about YOU

So ask yourself these questions – Is the CEO able to deliver messages to the media in an authoritative and engaging way? Indeed is he/she the best person to speak to the media? He/she may be the best CEO in the world but that doesn’t necessarily mean he/she should be facing the media spokesperson.

If there is someone else  who is much better at facing the media then who in your company is going to speak truth to power and make the call to the boss before the cameras arrive? Remember, you need someone who is good at handling questions from a wide variety of angles not just those areas of familiarity… the known threats and maybe the hitherto unknown stuff as well.

He or she needs to be authoritative and engaging when away from their comfort zone.

While it’s perhaps unlikely that a lack of customer care at your organization will go viral like the UA story, the damage done during the Golden Hour when key decisions are made can still be substantial.

Own the story

And yet it needn’t be like that; two recent examples of good crisis communications management spring to mind.

Remember the KFC chicken supplies fiasco from February 2018 when a logistics problem left the company’s UK meat stuck in a warehouse? KFC managed to turn what could have been catastrophic media coverage around with some astute PR.

Another example is the first-class way Chester Zoo managed their communications when a crisis hit the zoo in December 2018 after fire broke out in the Monsoon Forest section.  Some animals and insects died but many more were saved at one of the UK’s top zoos – where more than 21,000 animals live.

In both examples it’s clear that the organizations involved had a crisis plan which was both robust, flexible and able to respond to the demands of their clients and stakeholders as well as ensuring the wider public were kept abreast of updates regularly ; they owned the narrative early in the process in a way that UA  didn’t.

Be prepared

Arguably, we can see how the opposite has been the case with Br*x*t where it seems the key politicians in charge over the past years have been unprepared for the twists and turns in the negotiations and, it must be said, the communications.

Take 5 mins out to read this excellent article (title ‘Unprepared’) on the Tortoise website by the ex-BBC  journalist Chris Cook. He’s not just putting the boot in on what has been a tortuous time for UK politics (which would be the ever-so-easy route to follow) he cites a number of staging posts where he believes key mistakes were made and which could have been avoided.

Admittedly, the retrospective view of political events  is always clear and in black and white but as a commentator says at the bottom of the article “The seeds of failure were sown through internal confusion and disorganization very early in the setup process.”

To reduce the chances of your organization folding under the pressure of your own Brexit or United Airlines PR crisis, make sure your senior leadership team or key personnel are trained to tackle the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns so their reflexes are as sharp as possible, so even if an incident comes along which could not possibly have been forecast beforehand their instincts will be attuned to dealing with whatever comes their way, however weird the narrative.

Or of course you can just sit back and hope that your good luck continues.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

[To illustrate some of the points made I would HIGHLY recommend listening to a recent edition of the excellent BBC Radio 4 programme The Bottom Line with Evan Davis on Planning for Uncertainty -to listen click here]