The Blog

crisis communications, airport, pink elephant

Crisis communications: The risk of undermining success

Crisis communications went into overdrive in 2020.

And with good reason.

The pandemic impacted everybody in one way or another.

News coverage was dominated by Covid-19.

At times, the reporting moved on to brighter news with vaccine rollouts and lower case numbers.

However, three recent stories have demonstrated the risk of undermining your own success.

Interviewees who gave answers using unnecessary negatives.

And the pink elephants bulldozed their way into the resulting headlines.

These are the kind of headlines we pore over on the crisis management training courses we run.

Let’s explore what happened and why.

What’s the headline?

crisis communications, what's the headline, pink elephant

In online news, audiences read less and less of an article the further down they go.

Which is why the headline and the opening paragraphs are so important.

(This is true of business presentations, too.)

You may only have a few seconds of somebody’s time.

So it’s vital you steer clear of any negativity which sends out the wrong message.

Unfortunately, our three case studies here failed to do this. 

Let’s dive into what happened and why.

1. “That doesn’t mean any corners have been cut”

dr june raine, crisis communications, pink elephant

This is a classic.

And all we’re left with, as an audience, is a striking visual image.

Corners which have indeed been cut in the pursuit of a target.

This quote came from Dr June Raine from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Here’s the video evidence of her verbal slip-up.

And here’s the damaging quote in print:

“But… that doesn’t mean that any corners have been cut. None at all.”

This turn of phrase was in response to a suggestion that the body had signed off too quickly on the Covid-19 vaccine.

When, in reality, this ought to have been a success story.

The UK was the first country in the world to authorise its usage, after all.

A triumph of top-level expertise and rigorous testing.

Instead, the defensive pink elephant appeared.

And ‘cutting corners’ added fuel to the doubters’ fire.

2. “We weren’t cooking this up as we went along”

crisis communications, sir john bell, oxford

This, too, should’ve been an overwhelmingly good news piece.

A doubling-down on a British success story.

But one quote out of place left the wrong image with the audience.

This was Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University.

He was speaking after the announcement of a new global trial.

Oxford/AstraZeneca’s initial results had found efficacy of up to 90 percent in people under 55.

But now questions had been raised as to the accuracy of their findings.

Of course, Sir John had to tackle those critics head-on. 

But he strayed into unnecessary negatives to defend his university’s research.

“We weren’t cooking this up as we went along.”

I’m currently writing up my top ten Pink Elephants of 2020 list.

(Here’s last year’s edition.)

This particular quote from Sir John is certain to make the cut.

Both for its highly visual nature, and also the context in which it came.

This was a good story and an opportunity to silence the doubters.

Instead, we were left unconvinced.

3. “Covid is not out of control”

crisis communications, mark drakeford, wales

How many times have you read a news headline, and felt you understood the story in one go?

Here’s a perfect example from Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford.

I’m now left with the impression that the virus is spiraling out of control in Wales.

And all I did was glance at the headline.

Now if I read the article further, I’m much more confident that they do have a handle on the situation.

But this is the danger of the unnecessary negative.

Using it risks undermining your own success.

It distracts and detracts attention.

And your audience comes to its own conclusions in a matter of seconds.

Instead of listening to what you actually had to say.

“The situation is not out of control.”

How about phrasing it like this instead?

“The situation is completely under control.”

Disaster headline avoided.

Crisis communications

Pink Elephant crisis Communications, andrew mcfarlan

Our solution (or vaccine, if you will) is simple.

Only tell people what you have done, are doing, and will do.

Speaking in unnecessary negatives is, well, unnecessary.

You can still describe difficult situations using positive language.

You can defend your position while avoiding negative talk.

And, most importantly, you’ve got to promote your own success.

Doing so while remaining entirely positive.

It’s the only way to ensure your audience is left with the images that you want them to see.

If you’re looking for more on making the biggest impact possible with your audience, we’ve got a course just for that.

Head to the Pink Elephant Academy and buy our e-learning Presentation Skills Masterclass today.


Colin Stone is Senior Trainer and Communications Lead at Pink Elephant in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Feature image in Crisis communications blog by Anna Shvets from Pexels.
Headline 3 image in Crisis communications blog courtesy of BBC News.
Photos in Crisis communications blog by Pink Elephant Communications and Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels.

view all posts

Build Your Confidence

Some media trainers knock you down…and leave you down. Our media coaches show you how to deal with each knock…and still win through. So you have the presentation skills to perform – with confidence.

request a quote