March 20, 2013

When a crisis hits, how graceful is your response?

crisis management
Photo courtesy of Kid Gibson (Creative Commons)

After things go wrong, authenticity can set it right

Chris AbrahamSomething’s always going to go wrong. Murphy’s law demands it. It is your mandatory tithe to the universe. This is true about everything.

Perhaps character is what shows when things go wrong, and it’s what you do when things don’t go right that defines you. It’s never the end of the world. In fact, sometimes really messing up can initiate a valuable interaction that wouldn’t have ever happened were the mistake avoided. You’ll always be remembered more for how you handle something than for what you did in the first place. 

This is what I call “mea culpa marketing” — how to handle something that’s gone terribly wrong with as much honestly, aplomb, and grace as you can muster while you’re petty convinced that the end is nigh. And when things go even worse than that, I call it “mea maxima culpa marketing.”

The truth about mea culpa marketing is that you can’t — or shouldn’t — do it intentionally, though by the end of this blog post you may want to give it a go, just as a test. Don’t. It’s way too high-risk. However, always be prepared to turn lemons into lemonade when they do go south.

When things go sideways, make the most of it. When you’re thrown to the wolves, tarred and feathered or put in stocks or publicly mocked, your next steps, words, responses, reactions, and behavior is what will define you.

A personal gaffe tells the story

Here’s a recent example I’d like to share with you. Recently I sent out an announcement email to thousands of my tightest friends as well as thousands more to very weak connections who are, at best, acquaintances. I move around a lot so the role of the email was to let everyone know that I was starting with my new agency, Unison, and that I would surely love to chat about it. (I’m also continuing as a partner here at Here’s the email in full:

Subject: Following up on my previous email

Hi {first name}

I just wanted to let you know that I accepted a position with Unison as the director of social media. It’s right up my alley because they work with brand communication, creative and tech marketing PR/advertising; creative direction and design; and even app dev for web/mobile. There’s plenty room for collaboration.

I’d love to catch up with you. How are you doing anyway?



I don’t mean to be glib with this post. If you ask anyone, I was beside myself when I saw that my email merge not only didn’t work but went out to people whose opinions I care about with the {first name} variable embedded in there. You can ask my email guy: I was a mess. But I have experience and these things do happen. No matter how quickly you want to grab your tanto and end it all like your samurai bushido honor code dictates, don’t do it. Embrace it. It really is OK and I, too, have survived shame and public floggings. You just need to take your impulse and the experience and turn it into something much more positive.

In many cases, the sort of tarring and feathering response you receive in reaction to something gone wrong is a better and more complete engagement than when things go flawlessly right.

Here’s my story. I had sent an email to the same list of strong friends and weak connections a couple months ago so this email acted as an update and a follow-up. It had gone off without a hitch as I was assured by my mail guy that the above email, above all he had ever sent, had easily made it into every single email Inbox that we sent it to.

Unfortunately, I quickly realized that a bunch of first responders were ribbing me because they received their email not with “Hi James” or “Hi Mark” but with “Hi {first name}.” I reached out to my email guy and he told me that there were only 30 in this boat — but it surely felt like a hell of a lot more. In fact, it felt to me like the most prized and important of all of my industry contacts received these.

Authenticity is key with mea maxima culpa marketing

Photo courtesy of VCI Solutions via Creative Commons

How did I behave? Contrite as hell! I happily threw myself on my sword and begged forgiveness — and not in a way that diminished the import of the error. To me, it is always serious. It is only the recipient who is allowed to play, to mock, to judge, or to forgive. It is my job to only be grateful, ashamed, and passionately beet-faced and full of regret.

That is why one cannot — and should not — build mea maxima culpa marketing into their social media marketing plan: if it isn’t authentic, you’ll probably just make it worse.

Heaven forbid if you’re brazen or defensive or if you fight back! If you struggle, fight, or allow your ego to not handle the embarrassment, you will not only not be forgiven or laughed off as a glitch or the price of doing business, you’ll probably rather end up on The Bad Pitch Blog or the subject of a case study of what not to do in communications or with email.

If you’re able to accept responsibility, show contrition, appropriate seriousness and have enough humor and grace to be joshed with, you might actually grow in esteem

No matter what, you’ve done something inexcusable, and it’s only by the grace of the recipient do you live to see another day. However, if you’re able to fully accept responsibility, show honest contrition, appropriate seriousness, and then have enough humor and grace to be joshed with, you might actually grow in the esteem of those people around you.

In a world where everyone wears such shiny, shiny public armor, it’s always hard to get a read on someone’s character; this is especially so in a virtual world where many of us never meet in person. We don’t get the kind of experiences that really allow you to know each other well past the well-quaffed public mask, cultivated and intentional. Just like the New Yorker said years ago: “On the Internet, nobody knows you ’re a dog.”

Unfortunately, online, there are very few tried-and-true ways of stress-testing who you are and what you’re about.

When things hit the fan, people are very curious to see what happens next. Scandal and sensationalism are what people are drawn to and the way you handle any particular situation is how you’ll be remembered rather than the situation you got into in the first place.

Dealing well, publicly, with adversity is what separates a seasoned communications professional from a neophyte.

Crisis management

As I am sure you’ll expect, quite few of the folks who received the {first name} emails were concerned for me and quickly let me know. Another bunch gave me zingers and goosed me by responding with:

Dear Chris,

Please remove me from your list. Congrats on the new position. I wish you well.


{first name}

Some of them responded with pity, others said to me “it happens” or “happens to the best of us.” And it’s just fine and dandy that they say it, but contrition — a full mea maxima — does not allow that you ever agree with them. No! At most I will ever say, “thank you, that’s very generous of you to say.” And I mean it, too.

If you’re shameless and fearless, get someone else to be your crisis-response, mea maxima culpa marketing professional.

A few of those folks who responded to my email tweeted their glee and indignation that I would send such an email in bulk and that I was trying to fool them into believing it was in earnest and only to them, a fair statement and I was terribly sorry about that — for real.

I deserved it. What I did was patently inexcusable.

At the end of the day, I was able to use humor, contrition, a thick skin, my ability and willingness to be sorry and appalled, and the fact that I responded quickly and personally to every single response into well over a thousand personal email replies, many of which were not botched, many of which I could better read as simply teasing and playful and not the end of the world once the storm lifted (these experiences are emotional; even when you’re being your best professional self, you still are allowed to have feelings).

And this big mistake might very well end up being the best thing to ever happen to this particular communication. For two reasons:

  1. Many more people responded because of my failure — and I was able to engage with all of them even if not all outcomes were positive
  2. Because I as fighting for my life over this gaffe, I spent extra time and attention and gave more of myself and didn’t just call it in, as I might have done had the email gone off flawless.

I would love to continue the conversation about this in the comments.

And to you who received an email from me and didn’t enjoy it, I want you to know that I really do feel quite badly about it. I will try harder next time. I promise.

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Chris Abraham is a partner in Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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