Sometimes there's no way to make a bad day at the office better.
Take the disastrous leaking of Sony Pictures’ hacked emails, which caused strained relations from Hollywood to the White House, followed by the debacle of the canceled release--then subsequent release--of its film “The Interview” due to terrorist threats.
A speedy “sorry” while falling on a sword of accountability hardly provides damage control for wounds that deep. But often images can be repaired and restored. You just need a plan.
“Given the world we live in, the only thing a company can be confident of is there will be a crisis,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, in an interview with CMO.com. “The way you respond will impact your brand for years.”
Here are five best practices on how to avoid fanning the flames of corporate crises.
’Fess Up And Fix It
Even when you’re unsure how a gaffe occurred, own it: Take responsibility, voice remorse, and show concern for the public. Rather than theorize what went wrong, delve into the mishap so you can fix the flub and make sure it won’t reoccur. Give a timetable for further news.
And do so quickly: Social media’s speed gives you scant time to get ahead of a disaster and shape news coverage.
“Tell it first and tell it fast,” said Blair Christie, SVP/chief marketing officer at Cisco, in an interview with CMO.com. “As painful as that might be, it’s much more painful to clean up after.”
Consider Southwest Airlines’ handling of a plane that landed nose-first at New York’s LaGuardia airport in July 2013. Prompt tweets and Facebook entries let the public know the carrier cared about passengers’ safety. Southwest vowed to review the incident, which led to the firing of one pilot and further training for another staffer three months later.
“That’s how you get credibility and a positive reputation for the long haul,” Kimberly Pace, crisis consultant and clinical management professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, told CMO.com. “They were open, so no one feared a cover-up.”
Blaming the victim backfires, as when Walmart trumpeted that comedian Tracy Morgan wasn’t wearing a seatbelt when its truck slammed into his limo, leaving Morgan with life-threatening injuries and killing his friend.
“When the situation becomes about individuals versus an insensitive corporation, the public becomes angrier and things spiral downward,” Northwestern University’s Calkins said. “It’s incredibly important to be empathetic rather than defensive.”
Stonewalling also can cause virtual stoning. Witness the NFL’s response to the Ray Rice domestic violence case. It first denied knowledge of a related video. Then Commissioner Roger Goodell dropped from sight for over a week at the height of the crisis. This only extended and deepened criticism.
“It’s always tempting to hope a crisis goes away, but it won’t,” Calkins said.
“When the issue unfolds on its own, the discussion can go in a direction unfavorable to you. It’s better to over-respond quickly than under-respond slowly.”
Compassion For Consumers Matters Most
Saying you’re sorry is hard to do well–but if you genuinely care about consumers rather than CYA, you’re likely to gain sympathy.
“Compassion trumps everything in any crisis and should come through your tone of voice and body language,” Pace said. “The apology should take responsibility and express concern for people--their safety, security, and other basic needs. If someone has been injured, it should be clear the spokesperson feels their pain.”
An image can undermine 1,000 apologies. Rather than respond from a yacht (as did BP CEO Tony Hayward following the 2010 oil spill), Virgin Galactic chairman Richard Branson swiftly flew to the crash scene of a rocket plane in November and expressed sadness and shock on Twitter, Calkins noted.
“There’s nothing like the power of a responsive CEO,” Calkins said. “Symbolic things count. If you make a statement from the ninth hole of a golf course, it doesn’t seem like you’re taking the matter urgently or seriously.”
Use Humor Only When Appropriate
It’s one thing to make light of a tea kettle. It’s another to poke fun at an alleged rapist.
So JCPenney’s handling of a tempest about their Hitler look-alike tea pots helped the controversy evaporate. “They immediately took responsibility and said the likeliness was totally unintentional, and if they’d wanted it to look like something, they’d have gone with something amusing, like a snowman,” Vanderbilt’s Pace said. “That’s a great way to use humor. If they joked about the dictator himself, it would’ve been disastrous.”
But Cosby’s Instagram #CosbyMeme failed. “The images of a bemused Cosby seemed out-of-tune with current sentiment about the comedian,” Pace said. “You can’t make light of sexual abuse. It’s a serious topic.”
Consider the Cosby case a reminder that social media isn’t just for kids. Your Internet team must be deft and trained for a brewing controversy, Pace said. “When things go wrong on the Internet, they can get magnified so quickly.”
Human nature is to freeze in crises, especially if pelted by conflicting views from lawyers, publicists, shareholders, and customers.
But inaction may be perceived as indifference. So brands must mind their Ps: practices, playbooks, and the past.
“Preparedness is extremely important so our team can act very quickly and decisively,” Cisco’s Christie said. For the past decade, San Jose, Calif.’s largest employer has done postmortems of catastrophes, be they malfunctions, cybersecurity, earthquakes, or terrorism. “We’d much rather learn from mistakes than repeat them.”
Cisco drills and role-plays scenarios and trains executives in speaking and media-managing. All staffers have access to online and printed blow-by-blow guides and global contacts for key executives, customers, media, and industry-specific social media influencers.
“While each situation is unique, practice makes perfect,” Christie said. “When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to think clearly and view long-term goals.”
Lacking Cisco’s resources is no excuse for being ill-prepared, said Sydney Finkelstein, Ph.D., author of “Why Smart Executives Fail” and strategy leadership professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business in Hanover, N.H. “Ask yourself: What are the worst things that can happen? Then create plans for each calamity and review them regularly,” Finkelstein told CMO.com. Otherwise, strategies can be forgotten.”
So, too, can another vital resource: focus panels used for other marketing efforts, said Joan Treistman, marketing research consultant at New York’s The Treistman Group. “They’re real people, available to you at a moment’s notice, and can provide immediate feedback,” she told CMO.com. “You don’t have the luxury of waiting because public opinion is hard to shake.”
Avoid The Blame Game
An early warning system on festering flubs only works if your corporate culture rewards rather than punishes those who admit weakness.
And it’s there, smoldering. The Institute for Crisis Management reports 60 percent of catastrophes are preventable before they explode and puncture the C-suite with shrapnel, Vanderbilt University’s Pace said. “Train managers at all levels to spot conflicts-in-the-making. Regularly reassure them you welcome talking through problems as they arise–and prove it by not always blaming a fall guy or gal.”
Also, refrain from the natural tendency to grasp the first plausible cause, slap on a bandage, and move on, said Ashley Good, founder and CEO of Toronto’s Fail Forward, in an interview with CMO.com. “It’s a great detriment to your learning because failures often have multiple causes,” Good said. “Instead, consider criticism a gift.”
After all, in Chinese crisis means both danger and opportunity. While no one relishes being roiled in a ruckus, handled well such blunders may burnish, rather than tarnish, your reputation.
“You can emerge stronger,” Calkins said. “At their cores, people are understanding and forgiving.”