Creativity or Authenticity in Crisis?

June 12, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • Crises are always a mix of unfamiliarity because every situation is different, and familiarity because the fundamentals of an effective response are the same.
  • Unfortunately, sticking to these fundamentals and taking a ‘traditional’ approach can make your response seem old fashioned and overly conventional, tempting you to become creative.
  • Creativity can work in a crisis and make your response more effective but the underlying intent and message have to be authentic, no matter the medium or approach used.


I have been involved in over 25 years worth of crises and each is a contradictory combination of uniqueness and familiarity, all at the same time. Uniqueness because every crisis is different and has its own peculiarities. Yet each feels familiar because the core elements of an effective response are the same: care for the affected, make amends and pledge to do better in the future.

One recent situation was no different.


“The Old Fashioned Way”

The CEO had made some inappropriate comments. Very inappropriate comments, very publicly. Despite these being out of character and seemingly not reflecting his true feelings, these had caused great offense to an important group of stakeholders. The CEO asked me to help mediate a resolution to the situation. He was sincere, remorseful and wanted to make amends so I jumped at the chance to help put things back on track.  

We invited the impacted stakeholders to a private meeting where the CEO expressed remorse and apologized for his actions. An understandably robust dialog took place but, eventually, the CEO and stakeholders found common ground. The CEO pledged to take the matter seriously, learn and actively support the community.

The CEO then walked to a podium and issued a public apology which was carried live by several broadcasters. This apology was also printed as full-page ads in some newspapers the next day.

So a unique situation but a very familiar – and effective – response to a preventable risk.

However, I took note of something that one of the commentators said after the CEO’s apology had been aired.

“I guess that was effective, but it’s a pretty old fashioned approach.”

This comment stuck with me, and after things had settled down, I started thinking about what the commentator has said.

Was this approach too old fashioned? And if so, was that bad? Was there a better, more creative approach using the tools available today?

Time for some research.



The immediate problem I ran into was that although there is no shortage of innovative, creative attempts to manage a crisis, most are unsuccessful. Companies have steamrollered over stakeholders’ concerns on social media or, in other cases, argued with them or abused them. Other firms have tried to use humor and laugh something off which might fit with the lighter tone of social media but didn’t match the severity of the situation.

So it was hard to find something that was both creative and effective until I thought back to Facebook’s travails of 2018.

Unsurprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg took an unorthodox approach to accusations that Facebook had violated user privacy, and I believe that his approach was both effective and creative.

After a slow start, Zuckerberg first followed the traditional, familiar path. He put on a suit and tie, went to Capitol Hill and delivered testimony to Congress where he expressed remorse and pledged to do better. Although he didn’t get quite as far as a meaningful apology, this was successful in the traditional sense. More so given that the questions from members of Congress painted them as old and out of touch with technology, allowing Zuckerberg to avoid anything truly difficult and to answer the questions exactly the way he wanted. Overall, his appearance in front of Congress was extremely effective.

Score one for the traditional approach.

However, after this traditional – and effective – start, everything else Zuckerberg and Facebook did was untraditional. Zuckerberg used open letters on his blog, Facebook Live sessions, and town halls to get his message across. This approach was unsurprising given the individual and company: this is Zuckerberg’s natural element, so it made sense that he would gravitate to an online response and was highly effective doing so.

But the company also took other unusual steps.  In 2019, they accepted fines in the US of several $billion with little or no push-back. Zuckerberg called for government regulation of social media, albeit on terms recommended by the industry.

Overall, this combination of traditional and creative elements in their response seems to have been effective. Facebook shares continue to rise, user engagement doesn’t seem to have been affected and advertisers continue to flock to the platform.

So Facebook’s example shows that a creative approach can be effective, which then begs the question: should more companies be taking a creative approach?


Creativity for all?

To me, that answer lies in something fundamental: is what you are doing authentic? Because, no matter how traditional or creative an approach you follow, without an honest acknowledgment that there are wrongs that need to be righted, and a genuine desire to make amends and to do better in the future, no response will succeed.

I believe that there are four points to consider that will help determine if a creative approach is appropriate for you and your situation.

The first thing is that your response has to be authentic, no matter what approach you take. You have to have a good story to tell and you have to want to do the right thing.  You have to build your response on a strong, compelling message and a genuine desire to make amends.

Secondly, ask is being creative appropriate? Some incidents are too serious for anything other than a traditional, sober approach. Not taking a conservative, traditional path can appear disrespectful in some situations and will suggest that you are not taking the matter seriously.

The third point is to ensure that the medium you choose is appropriate for your business. An informal response that relied heavily on social media and the founder’s personality worked for Facebook because of the nature of its business. That kind of approach would feel unnatural and at odds with the sober persona of a bank or accounting firm.

Finally, keep in mind that being creative is hard, especially in the high-pressure environment of a crisis. Even with an authentic desire to make amends, taking a creative, innovative approach adds considerable complexity to the response and can rob you of valuable speed. The chances of a creative response going badly or being misunderstood are high, which will only weaken your message.

Above all, don’t lose sight of the first point. You need to be authentic with your response and don’t mistake the medium for the message. You can have a traditional approach like the one I described at the beginning of this piece or a creative, innovative response like Facebook, but neither will work if the underlying message is flawed.


Creativity built on authenticity

However, if you keep these factors in mind, I think that there are great opportunities for companies to be creative in crisis, particularly when that’s going to make their message more effective.

So think about what you can do to be more creative in your response. Experiment. Take a chance. See what your response could look like. And if you’ve got a relatively small issue, take a shot, see what you come up with and what sort of insights you have.

Just don’t forget that the message has to be sound and that sometimes, the traditional approach is the safest and surest bet.

And above all, whatever you do, be authentic.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.