When in Trouble, a Scapegoat Might Not Be Your Best Option


An op-ed by Péter Szatmári, account director, FleishmanHillard Café.

A memorable moment in the HBO series Chernobyl is when the plant manager and chief engineer hands Borys Shcherbyna, newly arrived on the scene, a small slick of paper, explaining that they have already conducted an inquiry and compiled a list of individuals who may be “accountable” for the disaster. In its tragicomic way, it is a hilarious scene, a relic of a bygone era. Or is it not? In domestic corporate communications, scapegoats are often offered, who bear the full responsibility for the failure of an entire organization, in other words, an organizational failure. Why might this be a problem from a communication point of view? We try to answer this question.

What Is the Role of Communication in a Crisis?

It may seem obvious, but it's worth reinforcing the idea that it's not the job of the communications department to fix a malfunctioning airplane. In other words, if a business problem does occur, the cause will most often not be communication per se, although a wrong solution or approach can always make the situation worse. The key to a solution is to solve the real problem first and to find the right angle to communicate it, with the goal of bringing the perception of the public, closer to reality.

When a crisis arises, one should have a thorough look at the situation and its background, before briefing the public. A key question you must answer honestly is whether you are talking about an individual, organizational, or external crisis, to build a strategy. Any miscalculation can be costly. As in all crisis management, there is always a risk that the organization will lose credibility or that the public dialogue will be very different from what we want.

How to Differentiate?

The origins of a crisis can stem from the culture of the organization itself, where the way business is conducted led to the crisis. In this category, the Volkswagen emissions scandal may be memorable. It is also possible to have a crisis resulting from a natural or external catastrophic event, such as the events of September 11, 2001, and the resulting corporate challenges. In addition, of course, it is always possible for a member of an organization to do something entirely individually that plunges everyone else into crisis.

Although it may seem simple to determine which situation is which, often an organization will try to shift blame to the individual to avoid organizational responsibility and the reckoning that comes with it.

Remember, Boeing tried to blame the pilots after the Lion Air Flight 610 disaster in 2019, saying they had failed to respond appropriately to the situation. However, an investigation later proved that the role and failures of the stall-protection system, called MCAS, were deliberately concealed and almost the entire company was responsible. The result is well known. Confidence in the company's reputation was shaken, they were forced to pay billions of dollars in fines and the chief executive left, several new developments had to be put on the back burner. Also, by the end of 2019, 53% of respondents claimed they were unlikely to fly the aircraft. The narrative has been made even worse by the fact that the pilots were blamed for the first time, and in some interviews still are. Partly as a result of Boeing's actions, both the pilot community and the passengers' relatives have banded together, creating a people vs. company dichotomy that no company or organization should want for itself.

Péter Szatmári, account director, FleishmanHillard Café

Domestically, It’s Individuals above Organizations

In Hungary, apparently there is a particularly strong tradition of individual accountability. One stark example is the communication of the National Ambulance Service in recent days, on the issue of a popular actor’s case. From a strict communication point of view, the organization was at a disadvantage from the very first moment and misjudged the perceptions of the public, so they did not respond to the situation with the right message.

The issue itself broke to the public on May 10, and the Ambulance Service first reacted to the news on Radio 1's "Balázsék" program, the next morning, where, anticipating the outcome of the investigation, they had already raised the issue of individual responsibility and responded to an unresolved allegation of discriminatory treatment of a famous person. Subsequently, an investigation revealed that the rescue operator had made a mistake. The results of the investigation were communicated by the service, blaming one person for the situation.

To this news, the comment section of every news site reacted as one and questioned the responsibility of the system, in a tone appropriate to the medium. Later, the situation escalated, more and more actors, the paramedics' association, and even the operations manager himself and János Gálvölgyi's, the actor in question, relatives stepped in. From here on out, the Ambulance Service has been constantly in the defensive. Finally, even the Ministry of the Interior launched an investigation. The narrative has finally slipped, and while the public began to worry about what would happen if he were in a similar situation, the paramedics were talking about being under attack by the public.

Although this example does not stand alone. Earlier, in 2019 Shell also found an individual responsible, a truck driver, when diesel and gasoline tanks were mixed at a well and hundreds of motorists had to be compensated, without elaborating on why there was not another round of checks in the procedure. Scapegoating was also used, for example, by RTL last year when it tried to shift the blame for what happened in a jungle reality show onto the presenters. Of course, there was no mention here of the editorial team, who approved it.

The Cost of a Wrong Diagnosis

But what is the real risk in such a situation? If there is a scapegoat, the organization is doing well, right?

The answer is more complex than that. The reputation of the company may suffer significant damage, as it could appear to an outside observer that the organization is shirking its responsibility and, worse still, failing to identify and address the causes that led to the crisis. Also, employees and partners may also legitimately ask themselves: who exactly are they working with, and what can they expect when they get into trouble?

How can a similar situation be avoided? A successful crisis communication process consists of many elements. But one very important step is to properly assess the situation, ask the right questions, answer them honestly involve the necessary decision-makers quickly and thoroughly. If the situation so requires, then acknowledge responsibility and take the necessary business action. The latter is not a communication task.

Once again It is not the job of the communications team to get the plane fixed or to put the right fuel in the tank. All they can do is to bring the public's perception as close as possible to the way the company sees itself and the situation. In this way, a crisis can even strengthen the reputation of the organization concerned as a responsible actor.

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