No matter how competent, all corporate marketers know they could be just one tweet away from having to manage a major crisis. Chris Daniels asks the experts how to prepare and what to do when such a scenario arises.
Crisis preparedness is a capability – not a function
Companies today can no longer rely on a crisis communications plan sitting on a shelf, says Harlan Loeb, global practice chair for Edelman's crisis and risk management practice. He says a plan, no matter how good an outline it provides for processes and protocols, typically falls apart in a live crisis when not enough preparatory work has gone into training key people and cultivating adaptive and cooperative behavior.
A CEO's inner circle during a crisis tends to be the legal counsel, the CFO, and his or her corporate communications executive, plus subject-matter experts. In the heat of the moment, they can butt up against each other and fall back on only their specific expertise.
Also, a CEO will sometimes rely on a particular person he or she trusts implicitly. “Frequently that person is the legal counsel, who tends to have a greater share of voice,” says Loeb, a former attorney. “That can create tremendous dysfunction in the context of a crisis because legal risk, while vitally important, is one of many in the mosaic that shapes reputational risk.”
That is why he emphasizes the importance of workshops where advisers address such disciplinary bias in the context of decision-making while playing out a fictional crisis. Interactive role play and cooperative problem-solving can help everyone see the bigger picture in the crisis context, while ensuring different competencies add value rather than cause internal conflict and dysfunction, says Loeb.
Imagine the worst – then work back
There is a human tendency, known as the valence effect, to overestimate the likelihood of good things happening versus bad things. This predisposition explains why Peter Hirsch, director of reputation risk at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, says, “People are pretty bad at predicting the probable arc of a crisis.”
Mexico shoots down its guns and violence reputation
Just over a year ago, 70% of news stories about Mexico in the US media were negative, focusing on incidents of violence and murders against foreign travelers.
Gerardo Llanes, CMO of the Mexico Tourism Board, admits the organization failed, at least early on, to respond to the crisis. The violence being reported was affecting fewer than 5% of Mexico's 2,500 municipalities, but the nation wasn't telling that story.
“We contributed to a void of information,” Llanes tells PRWeek. “When there is a void, it usually gets filled by negative things.”
Ogilvy PR developed a message narrative for the Mexico Tourism Board and con-ducted a full-scale media audit. An analysis identified CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times among those outlets driving the majority of negative coverage.
The team then analyzed which reporters would likely be receptive to a broader story. It arranged interviews with key executives, including Mexico's secretary of tourism Gloria Guevara Manzo.
“We took a very surgical approach per outlet,” says Jennifer Risi, EVP at Ogilvy and head of the firm's media influence group.
They also strategized to broaden the Mexico story by reaching out to reporters in business, arts, and culture, as well as those in other sections who had previously done little reporting on Mexico. “For instance, Secretary Manzo met with the head airline reporter at The Wall Street Journal for a story on connectivity to Mexico,” adds Risi.
In 10 months, the Mexico Tourism Board met every editorial board in the US and Canada and conducted about 350 media interviews that helped to generate 3.75 billion media impressions.
By the end of 2011, up to 85% of media coverage about the country was characterized as positive or neutral, although the discovery last month of 49 decapitated bodies near Monterrey shows there are still many challenges to face.
“By deploying a continuous effort in all aspects – not just talking to media outlets, but putting out positive news – we basically flipped the two numbers,” says Llanes.
He says companies must imagine worst-case scenarios in their crisis planning, and work back in developing a strategy for a crisis of every magnitude. And, when an actual crisis hits, he suggests a working group be put in place to ask questions such as: “This looks bad, but what would be worse? And what would that look like for us?”
As an example, Hirsch cites an explosion at a power plant for a client he previously counseled where the damage looked superficial. “I said, ‘We still need to think about the possibility that some people could be poisoned by the explosion, or that household pets might become sick, or even die, and their owners might blame the explosion.'” he notes.
“Even if they couldn't scientifically prove the explosion was the cause, it still could have become a reputational threat,” adds Hirsch. By imagining what could happen, rather than assuming the best outcome, the company took a more cautious and thus sympathetic tone that served it well as it emerged from the crisis.
When a crisis hits, it's not about right and wrong
Arthur Andersen, once one of the world's biggest accounting firms, was ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court for its role in the Enron scandal of 2005. Yet Arthur Andersen as a viable business did not survive the crisis, despite the fact that, in the eyes of the law, it did nothing wrong.
“It becomes very important, more so than most people realize, that it is not just about whether or not a company did something right or wrong,” explains Mark Penn, worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller. “It is about whether or not the company can see itself through the difficulty and get to the other side without mass defections and loss of business.”
With the understanding of that ultimate objective, a company can make the best decisions for the long term. For starters, Penn says a company in crisis needs to have a team in place devoted to handling the problem. Doing so will free up day-to-day management to carry on running the business.
“It is important the senior leadership team doesn't become paralyzed in the day-to-day business,” he suggests, “because that will make them more vulnerable than anything else coming out of a crisis.”
Don't get boxed in
Jeff Eller, global practice chair for Hill+Knowlton Strategies subsidiary Public Strategies, says individuals and organizations, particularly in public affairs, have an ill-served tendency to talk in absolutes.
“We've had many clients enter into litigation say, ‘We unequivocally won't settle,'” he says. “In most cases, however, they do.”
It is easy to feel passionately about your position in a crisis, but there are often key facts that are unknown that can change the direction of the narrative, says Eller.
“No matter how much you like a client, the people they are, and the company's culture, always play devil's advocate and challenge them,” he advises. “If they say numbers in a particular case are correct, ask them to check again or look at them in a different way. You don't want opposing counsel to come back and say, ‘Yeah, well, your own numbers don't add up.'”
By barring the company from talking in absolutes, you can also keep the communication lines open for a possible resolution.
“Experience has taught me that in times of crisis you need to look down the road in a way that helps your client not draw itself in a box that becomes really difficult for them to get out of,” notes Eller.
Look outside for help
Fresh eyes can help give a company perspective on a crisis. Beyond that, however, there are other reasons to bring in an outside team that can work with your internal people as well as your various agency partners.
It can help relieve the insecurities, anger, and fear staffers often feel during a crisis.
“There is a tendency for people inside a company to be concerned that this may in some way reflect badly on them,” explains Jack Martin, global chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “The beauty of having a team come in is that they can also leave as soon as the crisis is over.”
He adds that this also “diminishes the threat people inside the company may feel about this new group coming in.”
Identify the accelerants
Companies in crisis understand the importance of identifying relationships with allies, online communities, and third-party experts, all of whom can potentially lend their credibility and support against detractors.
Fukushima tragedy and US nuclear industry
Months before the tsunami-triggered meltdown of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant on March 11, 2011, the Nuclear Energy Institute in the US had updated and drilled its crisis management plan.
“We incorporated lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon,” says Scott Peterson, SVP of communications. “We saw BP use video on very technical issues, bringing in experts to explain facets of the spill in a way people could understand. When Fukushima happened, we had a lot of our technical experts do the same thing, which drove about 45,000 YouTube hits in the first week of the crisis.”
Still, Peterson says Fukushima highlighted tactical gaps that have since been ad-dressed. He recognized, for example, that his organization did not have a systematic way to help member companies channel educational material to local markets.
“We provided members with messages each day for five or six weeks after the accident,” he notes, “but we could have provided a toolkit and calendar of emerging issues/events to help communicate key issues to local stakeholders.”
Experts were also pulled in from member companies, but few had media training in the area of radiation. “We need to identify experts in very segmented areas and make sure they are media trained on a consistent basis,” says Peterson.
He adds that the crisis also underscored the importance of being able to scale communications on social media. “We didn't have a Facebook page when the accident happened,” notes Peterson. “As a policy organization, we were more interested in a blog, Twitter, and YouTube.”
“You may not reach members of Congress with Facebook,” he adds, “but you'll get a lot of Hill staff doing research on your issue. When you get into an extended event it gives you a platform to reach the general public and answer questions on an ongoing basis.”
However, embattled companies often fail to identify parties that Ogilvy PR's Hirsch characterizes as “accelerants.” These can be individuals, institutions and rival companies who have nothing to do with the crisis directly, but add metaphorical fuel to the fire because they see an opportunity to benefit from it.
“What labor union, for example, does not think about how it could exploit a workplace accident or a shareholder about a financial issue that has cropped up in a company,” he explains. “You have to plan and message for that.”
That was exactly the approach Hirsch took while working at another firm for the Hotel Dupont Plaza (now San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after a fire at the hotel claimed almost 100 lives.
Lawsuits were likely and he recognized some lawyers might be quick to blame the city's building codes. “We had already identified in our re-search that fire codes were almost identical to those in any US city,” says Hirsch. “We were able to message quickly and effectively when those questions were raised.”
Beware the online petition
Online petitions, which many consumers now post on Change.org, have become a powerful online tool. “The online petition is a game changer,” says Ashley McCown, president of Boston-based firm Solomon McCown. “They grow at incredible rates and they've proven to affect change.”
A recent example is Bank of America, which backed down from a new $5 monthly debit-card fee after a 22-year-old nanny started a petition. “She signed 300,000 people in just a month and then started to get recognition in traditional media,” notes McCown. “This is a powerful tool for the consumer.”
Whether it's a consumer products company that changes its policies, a charitable organization that alters the recipients of its funding, or a nonprofit that changes its political support, McCown says these are all situations that warrant careful consideration for the potential of online backlash among key stakeholders, particularly in the form of a petition.
“Thinking about their reaction and what they might do online can help you come up with a way to better articulate the rationale behind the decision to your stakeholders,” she says.
Humor – or humility – can sometimes work
A CEO of an entertainment software company makes this post on Facebook: “Girls don't like math games as much as boys do.” The comment yields a furor of response from young women about his sexist comment, spreading it like wildfire on social media.
“We counseled him to take a very mea culpa, egg-on-my-face approach to it,” recalls Christine Boehlke, CEO of North America public relations at Grayling.
The software company's CEO publicly apologized and berated himself for being so crass. He also humanized himself –letting people know his own daughter loves math and his wife does the family books. His daughter took to Facebook, saying he was usually a good guy and she loved math because of him. His wife also confirmed that she did the books and wouldn't have it any other way.
“By taking an approach where the CEO actually joined the audience in agreeing with what a silly thing he had said and showing why he really didn't mean it, our responses turned the flavor from outrage to humor,” says Boehlke. “The outbreak ended with a few good-natured jokes about him. It was over within 24 hours.”
That said, Boehlke emphasizes that humor (and humility) is not a universal panacea. “In this case we had a simple personal gaffe where there was no danger of actual harm,” she explains. “Our reply helped people acknowledge that.”
Rules of media engagement
Social media has blurred the lines between citizen and professional journalists, but that doesn't mean the two groups should be handled in the same way during a crisis, says Scott Farrell, president, global corporate communications at GolinHarris.
“The New York Times has a code of ethics and a certain degree of professionalism,” he notes, “but bloggers are not bound by that or the fear of being reprimanded or losing their job because they report inaccurately. You have to go into a crisis with different expectations of the treatment you'll get from mainstream media and social media.”
Farrell says that means sometimes letting a blog post with inaccuracies slide, otherwise you can spend as much time trying to set the record straight as you do telling your story in the first place.
“No matter how angry the blog post may make a client, the analytics might tell you the blogger doesn't have a lot of followers and his or her material doesn't traditionally go viral,” he explains. “In those cases, it's just best to let it go.”
It's over when….
Corporations want to shut down a crisis as soon as possible and move on. The temptation is to move on too soon, which can leave a company scrambling when they realize the problem is still bubbling.
“A full-blown plan for a big crisis should have daily multi-audience research built in,” says Grayling's Boehlke. “That will tell you when people have come to understand your points – or at least when they have stopped thinking about the crisis. Most decisions are more qualitative – based on what traditional and social media are saying.”
She also advises making sure not to inadvertently extend the life of a crisis.
“You need to be reactive on a daily basis,” adds Boehlke, “and never inadvertently keep the crisis going by being too proactive once you're on the downside of your bell curve.”