Malcolm Gladwell knows a thing or two about clear messaging. The best-selling author and journalist has made a career of combing through complicated subjects, uncovering novel ideas, and communicating those ideas in a lucid, engaging manner.
For these reasons, we were happy to see Gladwell draw attention to a critical issue in business writing—how to respond to a crisis.
As Gladwell sees it, controversy tends to bring out the worst in business communication:
Corporate writing is notoriously terrible. This isn’t because the people who work for corporations are terrible writers. It’s because the writing that takes place inside big institutions, in the face of a crisis, isn’t written by individuals. It’s written by committees, composed of people with multiple agendas.
Crisis-driven writing often comes across as detached, disjointed, and defensive. In trying to appease everyone, the response ends up pleasing no one.
How should I address controversy?
When responding to a crisis, write with clarity, honesty, and empathy.
As an exemplar, Gladwell points out the Women’s Tennis Association's (WTA) response to a crisis between one of its members (top-ranked player Peng Shuai) and a major stakeholder (the Chinese government). Last November, Peng disappeared after accusing a senior Chinese official of sexual assault. Weeks later she retracted her accusation in a canned statement to the Chinese state media, and has since made scant public appearances.
WTA’s chair Steve Simon responded to the situation with a clear, unified message in support of Peng. Here is part of that message:
I have serious doubts that [Peng] is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation. . . . If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded—equality for women—would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.
Simon’s full statement models a number of strategies you can follow when writing in response to a crisis—big or small.
1. Be transparent.
Managing a crisis starts with an honest accounting of what happened. Outline the key points of the situation by answering the 5 Ws questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
2. Be empathetic.
Simon expresses genuine empathy for Peng, but he also empathizes with tennis fans in China and Hong Kong, who are impacted by the WTA’s choice to cancel tournaments. He shows a strong awareness of his multiple audiences, another key to writing an effective crisis-response statement.
"I very much regret it has come to this point. The tennis communities in China and Hong Kong are full of great people with whom we have worked for many years. They should be proud of their achievements, hospitality and success. However, unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China."
3. Prioritize your values.
Simon invokes a core WTA tenet—equality for women—as the basis for the WTA's decision to cancel tournaments in China and Hong Kong. In doing so, he shows that the organization's values supersede its bottom line. His response also reinforces the WTA’s commitment to its members and creates goodwill with the general public, two positives that could ultimately lead to a better bottom line in the future.
4. Use clear, straightforward language.
Simon uses simple, powerful words to highlight the urgency of the situation: serious doubts; powerful people; suppress the voices of women; sweep allegations; immense setback. He knows not to muddle his response with business jargon and legalese, which would create confusion rather than clarity.
5. Maintain a unified voice.
One of the best qualities of Simon’s response is it sounds as if it were written by a real person—a single, unified voice of the WTA. Realistically, multiple people were likely involved in creating the message—committees, lawyers, editors, and PR professionals. Nevertheless, Simon’s voice and stance remain consistent from start to finish.
6. Keep cool.
Simon's language is firm and resolute—more firm than it would have been if the WTA had been accused of wrongdoing. That said, the language never reaches a boiling point, which could have caused more damage than good. In crisis situations, it is best to opt for sincere, composed language.
7. Take action.
The WTA's statement describes the situation, takes a position, and announces an action. This basic organizational structure can help you write your own response.