ANALYSIS: Learning from past errors is vital to current crisis PR

The volatile nature of crises makes PR mistakes possible. But these errors prove valuable when used to fortify current communications tactics.

The volatile nature of crises makes PR mistakes possible. But these errors prove valuable when used to fortify current communications tactics.

In the years after the loss of the Challenger, NASA scientists and engineers took a fine-tooth comb to the space-shuttle program, seeking to reduce the chances of future tragedies. At the same time, the agency undertook a lower-profile, but crucial task. Their mission was to revise a crisis communications strategy that was criticized as evasive after the 1986 explosion. "Adjustments were made to the space-shuttle contingency plan, which includes public affairs as an integral part of it," says Glenn Mahone, NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs. "Since Challenger, changes in the plan further addressed the timeliness of making a press statement, as well as scheduling a media briefing." When the Columbia was lost this month, the difference was clear. Even in the early days of the investigation, there was openness and a willingness to explain where there was once silence. Though it remains to be seen whether the agency will maintain this transparency in the long term, one thing is clear: NASA learned much from the Challenger episode and used lessons learned there to take down a communication strategy that was essentially a brick wall between it and the public. Learning from mistakes, however, isn't easy, as anyone who's been in these shoes will tell you. Crisis experts say there is often a tendency within an embattled company to want to get back to the business as usual that has piled up during crisis mode. The assessments that need to come shortly after, or even during days of bleak press reports, when wounds are fresh, can be painful. But that doesn't mean they're any less important. Lessons prompt planning "It's better to have gone through the planning," says James Lukaszewski, chairman of The Lukaszewski Group, an agency that specializes in crisis communications. "The companies that learn the most are the ones that are best-prepared, because they can measure their experience against the plan." Still, there is no one formula for squeezing the most out of a crisis. No two crises are the same, so even with all the preparation in the world, key decisions are often made on the fly. The lessons themselves come in all shapes and sizes, and the postmortem experience may yield anything from adding a few new successful tactics to necessitating a wholesale change in communications strategies. "A key component is the analysis afterward," says David Fuscus, president of Xenophon Strategies. "Any company that's been in a crisis will be better the second time around." No one knows this better than American Airlines, which has spent most of the past 18 months in crisis mode. Weathering the September 11 attacks that turned its jets into missiles, the crash of Flight 587 in Queens shortly thereafter, the shoe-bomber episode, and a financial crisis has been a tutorial on how to adapt a crisis plan under fire. Few companies' experience could match American's for its intensity. Looking back, even the Challenger episode pales in comparison. After all, NASA had years to improve its plan before it was met with a serious challenge, while American often had only a matter of days. One of the greatest challenges facing the company in those days were federal gag orders that prevented communication with a concerned public that included employees, customers, and shareholders. The airline was forced to remain silent as President Bush did the talking for the entire nation on September 11. A similar gag was in place after Richard Reid tried to blow up a flight from France. By the time Reid was arrested, however, the communications department had found a way around the imposed silences: the CEO's employee hotline, to which, the company knew, the press had access. It was through this channel that reporters found that they needed to learn more about the strong performance of the airline's Paris security team. The move diverted some attention from the beleaguered company. The lesson here, says Tim Doke, American Airlines' outgoing VP of corporate communications, is that even the best-laid plans sometimes need to be scrapped. "It's a lot of detailed blocking and tackling when it comes to how you reconstruct your plan, even when it's well honed and well tested," Doke says. "We had to reexamine it as if it weren't already an excellent plan. We had to second-guess ourselves, which is a good thing." Amtrak amends its strategy In late September 1993, Amtrak, no stranger to disaster, was facing its largest one yet. Outside Mobile, AL, a train had hopped off the tracks and plunged into a bayou in the middle of the night, killing 47 people. Reporters were clamoring for answers, and the company's lawyers, preparing for the prospect of dozens of lawsuits, were urging management to order the media relations department to hunker down. Clifford Black, director of the media relations department, knew that the company, in its silence, would take the blame in the press, even if an investigation eventually exonerated it. He'd seen the finger pointing before. But this time was different. Black had caught wind of a theory that might take heat off the company, and had an idea that would lead to an important change to the way Amtrak handled the days following a crash. He invited a trusted reporter from a national media outlet to his office, where Black, speaking on background, sketched out a possible cause for the crash. The reporter broke a story that a barge that had passed just before the accident actually struck the railroad bridge and caused the incident. "The story was not attributed to Amtrak, and it came out before it would have been appropriate for a company to say this accident was caused by XYZ," Black now says. "It ended up shifting the focus that was on Amtrak to something else." Black's story shows how a strategy as ingrained as the lawyer-ordered silent treatment during a crisis was overcome in the heat of the moment. Other improvements in Amtrak's plan result from observation and experience. An example is the incorporation of a wider range of employees into crisis management. Incident after incident demonstrated that it wasn't just the communications team that had to deal with the media. This would also be the job of conductors and technicians at the scene of an accident. A similar lesson was learned by Ford Motor Company during the Firestone episode, in which plaintiffs' attorneys sought to try their case in the media. The attorneys leaked documents from the litigation that were often technical in nature and that often didn't tell the whole story. What Ford learned was that getting the proper team in place to respond to media inquiries is at least half the battle. "You're dealing with complex litigation; you have to respond to reporters on deadline, while you have 10 other calls," says Jon Harmon, Ford's global news manager. "You can't just have a communications team involved. The lesson learned is that you need to get together a room for communicators, engineers, and lawyers where they can assess the information." The sum of all these experiences is that while analysis and planning are important, knowing when to depart from the plan is no less necessary. "With 20/20 hindsight, it's easy to second-guess," says Steve Cody, managing partner of Peppercom. Cody adds that an agency's role after a crisis should be to ensure that both internal and external communications processes work, and to find a way to benchmark success - basically, whether the company retains its credibility. Still, learning from mistakes, whether one's own or those of others is not guaranteed, as the tactics used by Enron and Arthur Andersen demonstrated. "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it," Cody says. "Some companies learn, some don't."

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