By Mike Wellman
Goldman Sachs. BP. Toyota. Domino’s. Nestle. GM. United Airlines. Procter & Gamble. Mattel. In recent memory, some of the largest and most-respected brands in the world have faced public scrutiny, disapproval, and active opposition. It’s fascinating to see that each time, a slew of critics will comment about how poorly the company in question is handling the crisis, often only to recant in retrospect when public anger isn’t as white-hot. Just as egregious, these critics of opportunity every time point to a favorite case study of Johnson & Johnson’s recall of Tylenol in 1982 as a point of comparison for handling crisis communications well.
Don’t get me wrong—I love that case study too. A speedy response, a clear sense of ownership, and making real change to rectify a situation instead of just changing your messaging are timeless principles that should be emulated. Recently, though, new technologies and stakeholder expectations have changed the parameters of how companies should react to crises.
While Olivia Newton-John may still be rocking “Physical” on Glee (thought you’d appreciate that, Kayleigh!), I thought I’d share a few new tips and examples we’ve been offering members for responding to crises in an age when a “flock of seagulls” finally just means a group of seafaring birds.
- Respond in the moment, where conversations take place. It’s not good enough to just respond quickly, and a press release is not a great response when the real communication is happening on a discussion forum. Brands like Southwest respond to negative conversations on social media channels by using those channels to have an informal, honest dialogue and set the record straight. You can see one example in this this YouTube video, which Southwest created in response to rumors that the airline had banned passengers for being “too pretty.”
- Be responsive, but don’t respond to everyone. Social media makes it easy for anyone to talk about your company in a time of crisis. Not only can it be difficult to deal with the volume of commentary, it can also work against your interests to focus too much on engaging with the company’s detractors. Ellen East, CCO at Time Warner Cable, put it particularly well: “We’ve learned to stop talking to the ‘haters.’ For customers who have a legitimate issue, we’ll direct to our customer care team. In Communications, we are now focused on building communities of fans.” CEC members: Download a principled system for responding to negative commentary or listen to a webinar for more perspective from Time Warner Cable and Sony if you’re interested in learning more.
- Don’t just make information available to stakeholders; make it easy for them to find and share your story. When Ford was being grouped in with other automakers during discussions around the Auto bailout, it made it easy for its fans to correct misinformation by launching Fordstory.com. Not everyone can launch a website in that sort of situation, but PR professionals should at least try to make their online newsroom more advocate-friendly by creating more shareable content and making it easier for advocates to support the company on their own networks.
- Exercise more caution and diligence, as today’s crisis can dominate your company’s search results for years. The web has exponentially increased the shelf-life of information, making it even more important in a crisis to communicate the company’s perspective frequently and clearly. As well, smart communicators are writing to maximize the “findability” of their communications (for example, focusing on SEO). Fortunately, the longevity of information on the web also means that proactive reputation-building can make a big difference when a crisis hits. Jack O’Dwyer may be trying to tear down the J&J legend, but in doing so points out that investment and industry analysts still give J&J the benefit of the doubt in its ability to handle recent recalls of children’s flu products. I would argue that the same can be said of Toyota, which has suffered minimal damage to its brand due to the trust it had earned.
Those are just four observations our group has made about how crisis communications has changed, but I’d also love to get insight from the crowd. Are there any rules that you would add? Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow communicator in “panic mode?”