Communication Catastrophes and How to Deal With Them
— June 17th, 2022
You know the moment when you’ve just hit send on a companywide email only to realize you’ve made a mistake?
(And why was it only at that moment you noticed the incorrect distribution list or the typo!?) Your heart thuds and your pulse races as your mind frantically races through the dismal options at hand.
Deflated after all your hard work to get to this point, you summon your courage and contact your stakeholders to apologize and send out a correction.
We’ve all done it. It’s truly horrible. “Send anxiety” is a phrase I’m sure all Communicators can relate to. There is nothing worse than the impact you were hoping to have all coming undone with a simple mistake.
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I’ll never forget when I wrote a companywide email on behalf of the CEO, where I had employees “singing” rather than “signing” contracts!
Messages from leaders to everyone in a team or company are a vital part of the comms toolkit. The information can be strategically important or operationally urgent.
It can reinforce company culture and influence behavior. It can affect a leader’s credibility and a company’s reputation. Mistakes can be high stakes in Communication roles, making for a pressurized environment.
There are a myriad of things that can ruin a Communicator’s day. In the spirit of a problem shared being a problem halved, I asked a few of my Communication friends to tell me about their catastrophes. Here’s what they said:
- Luke: “I sent an editable document to everyone (we're on Google). It was an operational communication and team members from across the country took great delight in changing the communication before we noticed”.
- Rinku: “I accidentally included 8,000 people’s names in the ‘TO’ email field instead of the 'BCC'. People used “reply all” to give their opinions and an email war broke with people saying, “Stop replying all” and some ‘funny’ people asking, “What are you all having for lunch? People got really cross.”
- Maria: “Late on the evening of a major announcement, a courier went missing with thousands of printed brochures containing confidential information. We had not thought through a strategy on how to deal with such a leak. After several frantic phone calls we eventually tracked them down, but it was a very late and stressful night!”
- Simone: “I printed 2,000 lanyards with the wrong start time for the event. I didn’t notice until we started to fill them. I had to quickly find a print store in Melbourne on a Friday to get them re-printed prior to the weekend event.”
- Lynette: “I sent an email with advice on how to performance manage a “difficult” person and accidentally included the person in question!” Ouch.
- Alice: “I organized thank you gifts and printed cards from the CIO and left them on everyone’s desk after a particularly challenging project was completed. I felt so embarrassed when he pointed out his name was misspelled.”
- Sam: “I sent an email on behalf of the CEO and forgot to replace my email signature with the CEO’s.”
Hopefully, that list gives you comfort that mistakes happen to everyone. You are not alone!
By the time a communication actually goes out or collateral is printed, it may have been rewritten and reviewed by a dozen or more people. You have probably had to resolve conflicting feedback, clarify vague details, and chase down people for input all in a tight timeframe. It’s no wonder mistakes happen.
If you’ve ever made an error, it’s likely etched into your brain so you’ll never make the same one twice. Here are some ideas to avoid slipups in the future.
- Take ownership of your mistake and actions to fix it immediately. Even if you think it will draw more attention to it, it’s always best to correct it.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Everyone stuffs up at times so try and keep things in perspective. As humans, we have a tendency to focus on the negative, so when you’ve got that big stick out, try and focus on the many things you are doing well.
- Do some scenario planning. You can’t prepare for everything, but ahead of big announcements think through potential issues – like a leak. Know who and how to escalate issues.
- Always have someone proof-read your work. It’s very difficult to check your own. Your brain actually reads what you think should be there and not what is actually there.
- If you must proof-read your own work, let’s face it at times it does need to happen, read it out loud, back to front, and try to do it fresh. Always check your hyperlinks!
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The more balls you have in the air, the more likely you are to drop one. Ask a colleague to step in or provide a fresh set of eyes. They will be happy when you return the favor.
- Slowing down can help you speed up. I love this tip from my colleague Simone, “Just because it’s fast-moving, doesn’t mean you need to sprint.”
- Always practice ethical communication. As Communicators, we have a lot of power and a responsibility to use it properly.
One thing for sure is that we’ll all continue to make mistakes. How you deal with and recover from them is what’s important. Making a mistake needn’t be a catastrophe.
Hopefully, we can keep it in perspective and learn a few things along the way too.