A Novel Approach to Crisis Management: Focus on Internal and External Factors

[Editor’s Note: Recently one of our staff was searching for a good read on Amazon and came across “Spin,” a novel with a PR crisis at the center of its plot. The author, Jim Lindheim, was practicing the adage, “Write what you know.” A former chairman of Burson-Marsteller, Lindheim worked on more than a few PR crises during his long career. For this crisis edition of PR News we asked him to provide a hybrid column. The first part uses elements from his novel’s fictional PR crisis to provide tips on best practices. The second part offers more crisis tips from years in the trenches.]

Jim Lindheim, Former Chairman, Burson-Marsteller

Part I: The Setup

The company is in a crisis. Key executives gather around the boardroom table for a strategy session, but the conversation is far from strategic.

Rather than identifying short- and long-term objectives, clarifying messages and deciding on a plan of action, a lawyer is huddled over his tablet marking up misstatements in the media, the board chair is evading responsibility, the CEO is screaming at the consultant for the bad press the company is getting, and the senior PR executive is told she should order more coffee.

If this sounds ridiculous, then you haven’t been inside a crisis.

The Basic Rules of Crisis Response

Most of the speeches, articles and books about crisis management and crisis communications talk about rules for a proper response. The basic rules encourage brands in crisis to react with honesty, to show concern, respond quickly and keep communicating.

Those who write about PR crises often cite good and bad case studies. Some hand out grades based on how the company responded. Was its response timely? How about the tone of its apology? Did the company take full responsibility for its mistakes? Were key stakeholders informed in a timely manner? Has it said how it will make sure the mistakes won’t recur?

Backstage in a Crisis

Unfortunately the literature almost never addresses what actually goes on inside a company when a crisis is raging. The experts fail to take readers backstage to see what transpires when the going gets rough and chaotic.

When PR pros are thrown into the raging rapids of a crisis, they have to do a lot of fast-action paddling. They confront organizational dynamics among people who have different titles or come from various departments. And they must deal with the tensions and taboos of reporting relationships.

Personal Dynamics

Plus, there are all the personal undercurrents–rivalries, friendships, cultural differences, prejudices–as well as their own past interactions with the critical players.

All of these elements–some of which may have played a role in creating the issue–become magnified in the cauldron of a crisis.

The Players

Want insight as to why savvy brands seem to make the same mistakes during their crises? Picture this scene. We see an egotistical CEO (imagine that!) who doesn’t want to adopt a “show-concern” strategy. Instead the CEO wants to vanquish the enemies.

We see a lawyer who likes to operate secretly. Then there are several excellent executives. Unfortunately, since they are females they are forced to struggle against rampant misogyny.

The H.R. chief is running from a larcenous past, and the CFO knows that a train wreck is coming.

Cat Herding and a Timely Response

The challenge is how to herd those cats toward a crisis-management strategy that follows all the golden rules. For example, it’s hard to be transparent when the truth keeps slipping around the room, and some people may be lying.

The crisis rule that urges brands to respond in a timely manner is difficult to enforce when a powerful person in the C-suite has decided that the crisis will blow over.

As a communicator you advise the company to show concern, own the mistake and take responsibility. That’s great advice until the high-powered outside lawyers arrive. Chances are all of them have studied liability law, but they haven’t a clue about crisis management in the digital era.

Guide Stars Not Roadmaps

There is no rule book for crisis management. The well-worn adages that are in every book and article are guide stars, not roadmaps. Similar to a play’s script, they don’t assure a great performance without the proper actors, scenery, costumes and lights.

Two Strategies

Every crisis-response requires two strategies. The first is a strategy for dealing with the world outside the boardroom; handling the internal situation is the second strategy.

Succeeding in crisis management requires the ability to cope with intense personal and organizational dynamics.

When people call crisis pros “spin doctors” what they fail to understand is that most of the spinning is happening inside the company. The real challenge is forging a coalition of agreement among the key decision makers inside and outside the C-suite. This can be complicated. But it is the most critical element of success in crisis management.

Part II: A PR Crisis Checklist

My career in issue and crisis management started with Tylenol (yes, I was there!) and included work with brands like Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Mobil, Kraft, Miller Beer and L’Oréal.

I’ve learned that the various “rules” of crisis management are always good to remember: show concern and apologize when warranted, act quickly, be honest, be as transparent as possible, own any mistakes the company has made, etc.

But from the vantage point of years of experience, here are four tips that, perhaps, transcend the well-worn catechisms.

The Manual Won't Do It for You

I’ve seen many crisis manuals/crisis guidelines and checklists in my day. And I’ve written more than a few. But I have rarely found them to be of much use in the actual environment of a crisis. Like a river going around a rock, crisis strategies unfold irrespective of a manual. Following a manual is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

The best (and last) manual I wrote was on two sides of a laminated page. It was designed to remind crisis managers of the questions they needed to be asking themselves and others.

Examples: Do we have clear short-term and long-term objectives? What does “responsible” mean in this situation? What are our brand loyalists hearing and thinking right now?

I kept a copy of this “manual” in my briefcase. It was always helpful when things hit the fan.

What to Do: Write down your set of pertinent questions. Keep it close-by. Consult it when trouble comes. It’s your cheat sheet for staying focused at a time when it’s easy to become lost in the whirlwind of a crisis.

Almost Every Crisis Exists Already

Think about Volkswagen and the other auto companies that cheated on the testing of diesel emissions. Or Wells Fargo opening up phony consumer accounts and committing many other improper practices.

The common theme in both of these crises is bad actors doing bad things inside the company. These situations didn’t occur suddenly, though it might seem so when they storm onto the pages of newspapers and pop on social media. They took time to develop and eventually were waiting to explode like a mine.

And the C-suite often knows about the potential crisis. Take Facebook. Several employees raised red flags about the dangerous misuse of the platform in Ukraine, in Myanmar and in the U.S. But management kept swatting the information away, wanting to keep everyone focused on the positive, on growth, on the mission.

Look at CBS and its longtime chief Les Moonves. The CBS board received word of Moonves’ improper activities before The New Yorker reported them. Similar to Facebook, the board failed to act on these earlier reports. Sound familiar?

What to Do: Never stop raising red flags. Work with risk managers, HR managers, marketers and everyone else to surface latent crises. And keep an eagle eye on the changing world of issues. Something that was abided yesterday can become a scandal today. Want some proof: Take a look at the list of those fired as a result of getting caught in the thicket of #MeToo.

Don't Copycat Another Brand's Solution

For decades following the nationwide Tylenol recall in 1982, it was praised as a model of crisis management. In 1990, the Perrier brand followed that model after it discovered traces of benzene in its product.

Eager brand managers copied Tylenol and decided on a nationwide recall, even though the FDA said it wasn’t necessary and the issue had received almost no attention. Perrier executives went on television and proudly proclaimed their social responsibility.

Some say the Perrier brand has never recovered from that decision. The recall publicity escalated public awareness and, in the long period when Perrier was off the shelf, competitors swooped in to seize the opportunity and gain market share.

What to Do: Pay attention to case studies but don’t ape them. Every brand has its own character and competitive framework. Each crisis challenge has unique characteristics. In crisis, there’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all.’ The strategy has to be appropriate to the particular confluence of factors you face.

Forgive and Forget

In 2019 most people have forgotten the Perrier story. And how many can remember the details of New Coke? By the way, some people believe it was the biggest marketing blunder ever.

But that’s the point. Before too long, most people won’t be able to tell you which car companies cheated on diesel emissions or which bank opened phony accounts.

People forget. And brand loyalists usually are quick to forgive. Often they are eager to do so. This is why building relationships with your audience is crucial. If the bonds to your consumers are strong, they also will be resilient.

What to Do: Always, always keep your eyes on your key stakeholders, not the media. And realize no one will be reading your bad coverage as closely as you will be. The media is not your prime audience. Your customers and consumers are; they are the people whose opinions really count.

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