Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

Unforced errors create havoc in business.

Almost all businesses will experience bumps along the way. Public relations professionals know that it isn’t what happens, it’s how you respond. Particularly with unforced errors.

We know unforced errors when we see them. It’s the type of thing that makes you shake your head and wonder how this could have happened. Often the general public has a better grasp of what should be done than the hapless business that ended up in hot water. Why does this happen? Often it’s lack of common sense.

I didn’t want to write about United Airlines. You know, the screaming, the crying, the dragging. There has been so much attention given to this that I had hoped that everyone would get the message. But collectively, we still wonder why? Why were such poor decisions made? Why would such a large business do something to harm themselves so badly?

I want to know what happened with the professional communicators. Where were they? Did they speak up? Were they ignored?

Now the University of California at Berkley has joined organizations taking a public relations hit. Another unforced error. It is almost impossible right now to not see negative news, jokes, videos and parodies of UC Berkley, it’s students and professors.

What happened in both of these cases was easily avoided. The situations, though different, will likely appear as case studies in Crisis Communication 101 classes for some time come.

Every business is likely to have a communication crisis at some time during its lifespan. How you react will greatly impact what comes next. Crisis communications entails everything from violence in the workplace, natural disasters, fires, boycotts, stock drops, strikes and yes, poor judgment.

There are several common components to these incidents. One of the most glaring is the lack of common sense displayed by those in authority. Another is the initial push-back displayed by the offending business. Lastly we have apologies buried in excuses.

Professional communicators know that when something goes wrong, the most important thing to do is to establish dialogue with your target audiences, and the public if necessary, right away. There is a tendency to want to have all of the facts before going public. However, this leaves a vacuum in which others will do your communicating for you. When something happens it is important to acknowledge it – right away. It’s okay to say you don’t have all of the facts, but get them out as soon as possible.

This doesn’t mean that businesses must apologize for everything that happens. What it does mean is that letting the public know you are aware of a situation is more important than meeting behind closed doors to decide what to do. It does means that if your business has something to apologize for it needs to be done right away, and with sincerity.

Think how different the United Airlines incident would have been if the CEO went public right away. He’s apologized several times now, but we could have all been spared had his original apology been timely and sincere.

What if UC Berkley recognized that common sense dictates that universities are to be bastions of free speech? This doesn’t imply support or distaste for any individual speaker, it simply acknowledges traditions most thought were already in existence.

When something happens – use common sense. Don’t create your own unforced errors. You don’t want to appear day after day as fodder for others on the news and social media. Mistakes happen and people love to forgive. Just don’t leave them shaking their heads over your unforced error.

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
She may be reached at 303-651-6612; scornay@comm-concepts.com; www.comm-concepts.com; Facebook.com/Communication Concepts; Twitter @CommConceptsPR; or Linked In.

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