What ‘The Office’ has Taught us about Crisis Communication

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The Office’ is an easily quotable television show. Between quirky Dunder Mifflin Paper Company Regional Manager Michael Scott, and fiercely competitive and socially award Salesman Dwight Schrute, the quotes are in no short supply. A line popular among fans was quoted by Dwight, “I am fast. To give you a reference point I am somewhere between a snake and a mongoose… And a panther.” 

It’s no surprise the dynamic duo spouted off memorable lines in Season 3 Episode 21, Product Recall.

In the episode, the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin had to perform damage control when a disgruntled warehouse employee added an obscene watermark to reams of paper. Missed by quality assurance, the reams were delivered to customers, including a local high school that printed their prom invitations on the paper.

Related: What ‘The Office’ Taught us about Workplace Safety – Domestic Violence

In response to customer complaints, Michael relinquishes direct responsibility and instead assigns outreach tasks to those untrained in customer resolution. He requested Dwight arrange a press conference. Dwight’s response, and cringe-worthy quote: “When a company screws up, best thing to do is call a press conference. Alert the media and then you control the story. Wait for them to find out, and the story controls you.”

There are multiple points of failure in the scenario including: not handling a disgruntled employee, the overlooked quality assurance, and the lack of trained employees. The crisis communication efforts by Michael Scott, however, must be discussed.

Visibility Vulnerability

When a crisis strikes, an organization becomes more visible to the public. Establishing a crisis plan prior to a disaster striking is essential, but miscommunication while in the public eye will create a secondary crisis. Michael Scott created a secondary crisis when he called for the press conference and invited a customer to the office, stating: “The press wants a story? I’ll give them a story.” Michael verbally apologized for the watermark, but his response lacked authenticity and empathy. He created a story when he failed to take responsibility for the error. He then provoked an argument with the customer in front of the lone reporter who attended the staged press conference.

Michael’s goal for the press conference: To publicly shed Dunder Mifflin in a positive light by apologizing to a customer and the customer accepting the apology.

The result: An argument (in front of a reporter) with a customer who demanded his resignation and then threatened to call the Better Business Bureau.

The events of the staged press conference caused a larger secondary story than the initial watermark crisis. When your organization faces a crisis, do not take the advice of Michael Scott and immediately call a press conference. Remember, information learned in the first 24-hours of a crisis is generally wrong. Instead, ask yourself ‘why’ five times before communication. Ensure you have a robust crisis communication plan in place prior to an incident and listen to the direction of a trained professional. Keep in mind the nine actions to avoid during a crisis.

Download our infographic: Communicating During a Crisis

9 Actions to Avoid During a Crisis:

  • Don’t talk through the media or through a third party. Communicate directly.
  • Don’t provide phone numbers, dates, or times. Don’t fall into a numbers game.
  • Don’t put anything in writing. If possible, meet face-to-face or telephonically. (Does not apply to life-safety situations).
  • Don’t explain. When you are explaining, you are losing. As yourself “why” five times before communicating.
  • Don’t forget someone important (example: donor, regulator, shareholder). Identify ALL constituents.
  • Don’t turn over any documents or computers until directed by counsel.
  • Don’t take ownership of someone else’s grief or try to characterize someone else’s feelings or what the loss must mean to that family.
  • Don’t talk about how the loss or incident makes you feel. No word you choose will measure up to what the family would expect you to say. Do focus on the family: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
  • Don’t reply to anything on social media.

Every crisis situation is different, however, planning and practicing are essential. Let us help your organization prepare for the unknown – even an obscene watermark – and avoid a secondary crisis like the one created by Mr. Scott.

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