Imagine a Jeopardy category titled, “Tired Corporate PR Phrases.”
For example, “delivering solid results,” “leverage our strong position,” “people are our greatest asset,” and—perhaps the most infamous corporate cliché of all—"Safety is our top priority.” These phrases have become so over-used as to be worthless. But we continue to see them in the response to crises.
The corporate cliché du jour is related to the incident involving an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 jet that suffered a panel blowout while in flight. The investigation continues, but indications suggest this was a Boeing problem more than an Alaska Airlines problem.
In response, in a January 6 posting to its website, Boeing declared, “Safety is our top priority.” Unfortunately, these words ring hollow, and they won't win any points with customers, regulators, investors or juries. Frankly, if safety is a "top priority,” then Boeing essentially failed at its top priority. Making such a statement simply reminds people of this.
(An aside: In all honesty, safety is not a top priority for companies. Being profitable is. That’s not a criticism, though. Safety is just one of the necessary means to ensure profitability.)
To be sure, Boeing is by no means the sole abuser of the phrase. And, to the company’s credit, back in 2019 at the height of the scrutiny over the deadly crashes of two 737 Max airliners, the company came across as much more earnest and sincere in its statements.
Cliché PR statements and AI: Not Effective Substitutes
Too often, companies default to the trite cliché of “Safety is our top priority” any time an incident occurs which leads to fatalities or injuries—or the potential for them. If you don’t believe me, just Google it. I did, and the search engine spat out 12.3 million hits on the phrase. Perhaps this is just lazy crisis communicating. Of course safety is a priority. But no company should expect a pat on the back for emphasizing it. It’s table stakes.
Nor should companies rely on AI to message their way out of a problem. Here’s an example of what I mean: I instructed ChapGPT to “Draft a corporate apology for an airline which has suffered a plane crash.”
“We are deeply saddened to inform you about the tragic incident involving one of our aircraft recently… Safety has always been our top priority,…”
Even artificial intelligence is an abuser of clichés!
In Crisis Response, Words Matter
One of the central tenets of effective crisis management is that a company is judged not by the crisis, but by its handling of the crisis. In all instances, words matter.
Another central tenet is that in a crisis, leadership needs to step up. And here is where I think we see a distinction between the use of clichés and compelling crisis messages. In a situation such as that facing Boeing, people want answers. Equally important: People want to know the company and its management have feelings.
This is where the communications pros need to step in.
Boeing did a more effective job following the above-mentioned 2019 crash of two 737 Max jets. As then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg said at the time, “We've always been relentlessly focused on safety and always will be. It's at the very core of who we are at Boeing. And we know we can always be better.”
Similarly, in 2015 Chipotle saw an outbreak of cases of E. coli food poisoning related to products on its menu. It was a major crisis for the company. Instead of just saying, “Safety is our top priority,” company founder Steve Ells took out full-page ads that read, “As a chef, nothing is more important to me than serving my guests food that is safe, delicious and wholesome… the fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry.”
Effective crisis management is about more than messages, but the best crisis plans fall down without effective messages. PR advisors like to talk about communicating with purpose and authenticity. But employing off-the-rack clichés is the antithesis of this mantra. And no CEO would want his or her name associated with a trite cliché.
Takeaways from this crisis for PR pros:
*Write as if you are writing for the CEO.
*Put some heart into your words.
*Write as if you are communicating to your loved ones. Would they be satisfied with clichés?
Our job is not simply to convey words; it is to make people believe them.
Chris Gidez is Founding Partner at G7 Reputation Advisory.