by Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know“
Every leader hopes they never have to face a public relations crisis. That’s unrealistic. Any company that puts itself out there — no matter how cautious and how diligent its people are — can and likely will experience a mishap. Sometimes those mishaps are minor; other times they have deadly consequences. And thanks to the always-on nature of today’s media, how you handle your (inevitable) crisis will determine whether your reputation is destroyed or preserved… and in some cases strengthened.
The key to good crisis management is three-fold: preparedness, responsiveness, and transparency.
Crisis management is not just about handling the situation once it has happened. It’s about foresight, anticipating potential crises before they occur, and having a robust plan in place to address them effectively when they do.
The preparedness piece, of course, comes first. My colleague Jonathan Dedmon — who wrote a crisis communications chapter in the 2022 book The Public Relations Handbook, which I edited — recommends putting together a small and agile core team, taking inventory of past crises (to determine if they might recur), imagining future possible crises, and putting together a written plan for each.
In a crisis, every second counts. Quick decision-making, clear communication, and a unified message can make the difference between a company that survives and thrives and one that takes a serious hit to its reputation.
With that in mind, here are a few things TO DO and a few things NOT TO DO:
DO: Tell it all and tell it fast.
Some crises take hours, and some draw out for months. In the early stages, “the best strategy is to tell it all and tell it fast”. Be disciplined and know that nothing happens automatically. Making sure the core team is on the same concise page is very important, as mixed messages hinder the company’s ability to navigate the crisis.
EXAMPLE: Johnson & Johnson Extra-Strength Tylenol Crisis
Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol crisis remains the gold standard on what to do and is a case study still taught four decades later. Seven people had died in the Chicago area in 1982 after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules that had been poisoned with cyanide. What set the company apart was how they responded: They recalled 31 million bottles of those capsules and replaced them all with a safer product free of charge.
The outcome was Johnson & Johnson barely lost market share and customers. After releasing their tamper-proof packaging — which changed the industry — they rebounded well, even if it did cost them almost $100 million.
The point is this crisis could have been lethal, yet they were able to turn it into an opportunity to rebuild public trust instead of lose trust by getting out in front of the story, and putting their customers and public safety first instead of trying to spin the story.
Besides moving quickly and transparently, make sure your message contains a heavy dose of empathy. As Dedmon writes: “It is a generally accepted rule that the best messaging has a strong emotional component versus simply a logical and rational argument.”
A few more tips:
- Talk from the viewpoint of your audience and to their self-interest.
- Avoid jargon and euphemisms. An explosion is not an incident.
- Tell the truth, even if it hurts. Don’t be defensive.
- If the media gets something wrong, correct it immediately.
- Never say, “No comment.” If the information is private — say, about personnel — explain the reason. Then find something else to say.
DON’T: Try to escape accountability at the expense of your customers’ well-being.
EXAMPLE: General Mills Shrimp Tail Incident
In March of 2021, podcast host and comedian Jensen Karp tweeted a photo of what he said he found in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal: two shrimp tails. After offering to send Karp a replacement box of cereal, the social-media team tweeted that those weren’t shrimp tails; they were cinnamon-sugar clumps.
Keep in mind that Karp’s tweet had included a photo, so thousands could see for themselves that the “accumulation” looked exactly like shrimp tails. As can — and does — happen in the Twitterverse, a flood of ridicule and memes followed. Soon, the shrimp tails leapt from Twitter to news stories in publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Business Insider and broadcasts such as Fox News and CNN.
The social media team for Cinnamon Toast Crunch should have responded with the alacrity and seriousness appropriate for a matter of consumer health, even if it couldn’t verify the contamination or quickly trace how it might have happened. In fact, one manager responded that it couldn’t have happened in his facility, which sounded like passing the blame, not reassuring customers.
Bottom line: Instead of the ridiculous explanation of accumulated cinnamon sugar, General Mills could have responded by recalling all the boxes sold at Costco, where Karp had purchased his cereal. Stories like this live on via the internet, and if you Google “Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” you’ll see lots more sordid details.
DON’T: Try to spin the story or be dishonest.
EXAMPLE: Volkswagen Crisis
While Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol scare is a model for the right way to address a scandal, Volkswagen provides the wrong way. They were accused by the EPA in 2015 of deliberately violating the Clean Air Act through software that permitted their cars to pass emissions tests that without the software would not. No one likes to be misled, and that includes the EPA.
The company executives bungled the response. They first lied about it, then later admitted they knew. Then they moved to lay off 300,000 workers. Although probably unrelated, the perception of it was that employees were being fired to make up for the loss in profit. In response, consumers took to social media to charge the company with deliberately deceiving them.
It takes a long time, if ever, to repair this type of damage to a company’s reputation and to rebuild trust. In contrast to the Tylenol scare, Volkswagen’s executives’ response made things entirely worse.
DON’T: Tweet “thoughts and prayers” or give another canned response…
EXAMPLE: Amazon Tornado
In December of 2021, a tornado ripped through an Edwardsville, Illinois, Amazon warehouse, destroying it. Six people died. But instead of an immediate and appropriate response, Jeff Bezos’ first acknowledgment of the tragedy came as a tweeted statement twenty-four hours later and came across as insincere. The lesson learned here is that any statement’s wording is crucial. Part of Bezos’ tweet was “our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones,” but apparently unbeknownst to Bezos, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become an overused line by politicians and others responding to mass shootings and other mass casualty incidents.
… And CERTAINLY DON’T: Leave the door open for more trouble!
EXAMPLE: Amazon Tornado (Part 2)
After the Edwardsville crisis, Bezos started his own tornado that would rip through Amazon and the country at large: Word came out that Amazon workers were allegedly forced to continue working through tornado warnings. OSHA investigated and found that Amazon had met the minimum standards, but it ultimately has remained a stain on the company’s reputation to this day. (It seems clear that when deadly natural disasters threaten, “minimum” isn’t good enough!)
DON’T: Panic and overreact.
EXAMPLE: Chilean Grapes Versus the FDA
In 1989, the FDA came down on grapes imported from Chile — after being fed an anonymous tip. The FDA inspector in Philadelphia made a special examination of a miniscule portion of the hundreds of thousands of tons of fruit brought in daily. Two grapes in 600,000 crates were found to be injected with cyanide.
The FDA commissioner was about to ban the sale of Chilean grapes when a lawyer called me to help the Chilean government deal with the impending crisis.
We went to work quickly and made sure the Chilean government was able to present a single, consistent position to the Department of Commerce, the Federal Trade Commission, and the FDA. We reinforced with the FDA the risk of inappropriately submitting to terrorist demands. The real villains were unknown, but the victims would be the American consuming public and the fruit growers of Chile.
Fortunately, the danger to the public was not real. If it had been, we would have handled the situation differently. We were able to convince the FDA to lift the ban, and then broadened the field of information to include the trade, the industry, consumers, and the media, and demonstrated the absurdity of being bamboozled by two grapes in 600,000 crates. We were careful, however, to never try to dismiss the public’s fear directly.
Finally, never dodge the media. If the crisis is a tragedy, then reporters will have to write or broadcast stories no matter what. You can’t completely control the narrative, but you can make sure the company’s message is heard.
Build relationships with the media long before a crisis occurs. Know the journalists who cover your industry. Feed a reporter something interesting (not self-serving) going on in your company or industry. Tip them off when a big announcement is about to be made, such as a change in leadership or relocation of headquarters. Answer calls and emails. Building trust in the good times will prove a valuable foundation in a time of crisis.
Robert L. Dilenschneider, founder and CEO of The Dilenschneider Group, is one of the world’s foremost communication experts and leadership coaches. Dilenschneider has authored 18 seminal business and career development books. He has counseled major corporations and professional groups around the globe and is frequently called upon by the media to provide commentary and strategic public relations insights on major news stories.