The Crisis Lessons of 2021: Truth, Empathy and Promptnesss

We expected good things from 2021. Instead, it delivered large doses of frustrating virus protocols, political turmoil, mistrust, disinformation and reputation gaffes. Classic PR blunders generated headlines when leaders failed to learn from history. Here are a few cautionary tales as we look to 2022.

* A textbook response is not always enough. At least 88 people were killed and many more injured in the early hours of December 11, 2021, after tornadoes blasted through western Kentucky and southern Illinois. Among the victims were six Amazon warehouse employees in Edwardsville, Ill. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was busy with a BlueOrigin rocket launch. He finally issued a generic statement Saturday evening. Earlier, Amazon issued a textbook statement that fell far short on the empathy scale.  ‘Thoughts and prayers’ statements are expected, but stakeholders need to hear genuine compassion and specifics about how the company will help.

* What you say can and will be used against you. After the tornado, candlemaker Mayfield Consumer Products allegedly told employees they would be fired if they left during the storm. A class-action suit charges Mayfield with “flagrant indifference.”

* Changing your name won’t clean up a bad reputation. Amid far-reaching new whistleblower allegations, Facebook restructured and created a parent company called Meta.  Whatever it calls itself, though, the company continues to deny and deflect rather than face self-inflicted problems and take steps to rebuild trust. Instead, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stubbornly sticks to a strategy of tone-deaf resistance and indifference.

* Address rumors and incorrect information head-on. Quickly.  Lies, speculation and rumors move at lightspeed. Fail to counter them with facts and transparency and they will take root and become difficult to overcome. Leaders must act quickly to share facts as a crisis unfolds or risk losing control of the narrative. The public will forgive missteps, but if stakeholders believe you are stonewalling, they can turn against you, often publicly.

* The truth will come out. The CEO of McDonald’s, Chris Kempczinski, faced backlash and calls for his resignation after a text to Chicago’s mayor that appeared to blame grieving parents for the shooting deaths of two children. An activist who filed a public information request uncovered Kempczinski’s callous remarks.

Heed these lessons in 2022.

Wishing all a safe, healthy and joyous holiday.

- Deb Hileman

Deb Hileman, SCMP, is president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management.