Crisis management is the process a business or organization utilizes when a sudden emergency situation occurs. An emergency situation could happen to any company or business and could really be anything - a threat to stockholders, the organization or their reputation. We don’t expect them but we can definitely prepare.
Our role as public relations professionals is to help manage the incident by advising the best strategic approach to take, identifying the audience that needs to be communicated with, and collecting material that supports the strategy - statements, questions and answers, and briefing documents.
Public relations professionals need to be on top of the incident before it becomes public, while it is public, and support communications after its publicity to ensure that steps are being taken to prevent it from happening again.
When it comes to crisis PR, one key point to keep in mind is that every crisis situation is different. Just because a specific strategy helps resolve one situation, that doesn't necessarily mean those same strategies will help another. With that being said, here are some general do’s and don'ts according to Seitel (2017) in his textbook The Practice of Public Relations:
- Don’t keep all communication channels open. While normally it may be a good idea to keep an open flow of communication between multiple corporate officers and the press, at times of crises, it’s better to speak with a unified voice as to avoid any miscommunication. Appointing one person to be the spokesman (or spokeswoman) for the organization would be much wiser to avoid any unnecessary confusion.
- Don’t always place the CEO in front of the firing squad. During crises, the press would most likely want to speak directly to the individual in charge, which at time may be unavoidable, but if possible, it’s best to leave that job to the person appointed and trained for the communication task.
- Don’t always take the lawyer's advice. Typically, in a situation where the fate of the organization is at stake, the lawyer may recommend for the CEO and/or spokesperson to “just say nothing” to the press, but that isn’t always possible. Instead, responding to the press with a clear and well thought out response would be a much better approach.
- Don't lean toward withholding the information. Simply put, it’s better to attempt “controlling” the situation rather than letting it go in whichever direction it wants. To piggy back from the last point, a decent response is sometimes better than no response at all.
- Don't always answer every question. Like mentioned above, its better to provide some kind of information than none at all, but that does not mean every question should be answered. Some things just cannot be or should not be answered if there’s a good chance the answer will damage the organization. Strategically select what’s being answered.
- Don’t ever lie. Surely, there’s no need to expand on this point. Just don’t do it.
- Do be flexible. It’s important to “be prepared” if a crisis unfolds, but it’s impossible to be prepared for every situation, therefore, being as flexible as possible will indeed be much more effective in dealing with crises rather than always sticking to a structured response plan.
- Do respond early. The manner in which news stories initially roll out regarding a crisis can easily set the tone for the rest of the ordeal, so it is best to come out early and provide a statement as soon as possible in order to avoid any incorrect assumptions being made about a situation and the organization.
- Do speak with one voice. Going back to the first point in the “don’t” section, speaking with a unified voice is perhaps one of the best methods in order to avoid any unnecessary hurdles.
- Do be prepared to make a move. As mentioned earlier, once a crisis strikes, time can work against an organization if they're not too careful. It may hurt them more by staying silent for too rather than preparing and delivering a brief statement, even if all the facts have not been gathered yet.
- Do fire back if you’re wronged. In a situation where a false accusation has been made about an organization that is unfair or just simply incorrect, it’s okay to fire back at those who aim to wrong the organization and set the record straight.
- Do seek out your allies. In a crisis, generally, organizations will need all the help they can get. Seeking out support from anyone who believes in your business is a very beneficial way to regain traction.
[Source: Seitel, F. P. (2017). The practice of public relations (13th ed.). Pearson.]
EXAMPLES OF PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT
Here are some real-world examples of PR crisis management for some of the world’s biggest scandals.
- Johnson & Johnson’s Cyanide-Laced Tylenol Capsules (1982)
The scandal that brought us tamper-proof packaging on medicine was the country’s biggest crisis at the time. Johnson & Johnson’s came under heavy scrutiny when in Chicago seven people died after taking Tylenol tablets that were laced with cyanide. Johnson & Johnson’s response was to pull over 31 million bottles of Tylenol from the shelves all over the country, at the heavy cost of $100 million in losses for the company, and halting production and advertising completely. They also got involved with police, FBI, and FDA to help catch the killer, offering a $100,000 reward. When production began again, they introduced tamper-proof packaging to help ensure this never happens again.
This case is renowned for its success in crisis management as Johnson & Johnson, as well as their product, Tylenol, were able to make a complete recovery and strong comeback. Because the company showed great concern for customer safety and made gestures that showed that customer safety came first, they were able to keep their name in a good light and gain appreciation from the public.
- Domino’s YouTube Scandal (2009)
While Johnson & Johnson’s example was the perfect example of crisis management, Domino’s Youtube scandal can teach us a thing or two of what not to do. In 2009, two Domino’s employees posted a video on Youtube of them doing a number of unsanitary acts to customer’s orders before giving them out. Because 2009 was a time of baby steps when it came to the internet and social media, Domino’s didn’t respond to the video until 2 days later, which proved to quite damaging as it gave the situation 48 hours to become viral and nation-wide news.
Domino’s eventually managed the situation by posting a response video from the Domino’s president, firing the employees, shutting down the store where it happened, and opening up social media accounts for a stronger online presence. But perhaps had they responded earlier, it still wouldn’t be a topic we discuss almost ten years later.
- IAC Exec’s Insensitive Tweet (2013)
Sometimes the a company’s crisis has nothing to do with outside sources; the crisis could be you! When Justine Sacco, a PR exec at IAC, tweeted out before a trip to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” it stirred a social media storm. To save their reputation, the company fired Sacco and issued a statement distancing themselves from Sacco’ actions and the tweets implications. While the company was able to walk-away from the incident more or less unscathed, the same can’t be said for Sacco.
It’s important to remember this example as future PR professionals. The company used crisis management to save their reputation but it came at the cost of their PR chief who should’ve been aware of the power of social media and public image.