How to Respond to What Might Become a Crisis


It’s generally accepted that brands are highly vulnerable to crises. We’ve all heard the maxim, “It’s not a question of if your brand will experience a crisis, but when.” The good news is that, as Torod Neptune said during a PR News event last year when he was a VP of corporate communications at Verizon (he’s now VP, global communications, at Lenovo), communicators often know where most crises will occur. They can more or less predict where a brand's vulnerabilities are since they work across the enterprise.

But how about when it doesn’t take an experienced communicator to know that a brand might be vulnerable? What should brand communicators do in those situations?

Two current incidents illustrate the point:

Incident One: David Allen Cripe, 16, of South Carolina, ingested a fatal amount of caffeine within a 2-hour period late last month. Cripe collapsed in a classroom at his school and was pronounced dead Apr. 26 of “a caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia,” Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said during a news conference May 15, CNN reported. The caffeine was contained in a Diet Mountain Dew, a McDonald’s café latte and an energy drink. The story hit national and global headlines May 15, after the coroner’s report was released.

If you were a communicator at Mountain Dew (whose parent is Pepsico), McDonald’s or numerous energy drink brands, what would you be doing now?

Incident Two: The wife of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, seemed to indicate to CBS This Morning earlier today (May 17) that her husband, arguably the sport’s marquee player, had suffered a concussion or concussions during the 2016-2017 football season. "As you know, [football is] not the most, like, let's say 'unaggressive' sport. Right? Like, he had a concussion last year," Bundchen said, according to "I mean, he has concussions pretty much. We don't talk about it, but he does have concussions. I don't really think it's a healthy thing for your body to go through, do that kind of aggression all the time….”

Hold on. There were no official reports of Brady having a concussion last season. Of course, there might be a reason for that. Brady’s team, the Patriots, and especially its coach, Bell Belichick, are known for preferring root canal work without anesthesia to speaking with the media. PR just isn’t their thing. Still, the National Football League requires such reports about injured players to be made public as football betting just wouldn't seem fair without them.

Seriously, concussions are a major issue for the NFL, which recently settled a 6-year-old class-action suit former players and their families brought related to concussion syndrome. Some 20,000 players might be eligible to obtain awards from the settlement.

The league in 2016 proscribed certain helmet-to-helmet hits and other moves to spur a safer game and reduce the likelihood of concussions. Players who are suspected to have suffered concussions are supposed to be removed from playing in games or practices under NFL rules officially known as the NFL Game Day Concussion Protocol, which was instituted in 2009 and updated during the past seven years.  Moreover, some groups are calling for professional football to be outlawed due to the incidence of concussions. Traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions, may increase the likelihood of a person developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

The story about Brady has spurred speculation that he might have been faking his health to avoid missing games due to a concussion. If Brady did in fact suffer a concussion, did the NFL know about this and when did it know? How about his team?

Bundchen's comments went national the moment her words were sounded on the CBS show. Sports network ESPN interrupted its national radio feed of Mike and Mike just before 10 am ET to report the story.

We ask the same question as above: If you were a communicator at the NFL or the Patriots, what would you be doing now?

The Reactions: Several brand communicators and one agency executive we spoke with had similar counsel when asked about the Brady situation: Listen and monitor the conversation before reacting. In addition, brands should have in their crisis management plans methods to assess whether something is an incident or has risen to the level of a full-blown crisis, several of those interviewed said.

OK, so how long should these brands monitor the situations before they release a statement or an apology or react by doing nothing and allowing the stories to die? Crisis is a delicate dance. It’s a mistake, one communicator told us, to wait too long to respond: United Airlines took some 19 hours before its response to the video of Dr. David Dao being dragged off one of its aircraft. An obvious mistake since at that point the stakes had been raised.

On the other hand, it’s foolish to rush in with a knee-jerk reaction or an insincere apology that contains a lot of qualifications and corporate-speak. Remember United chief Oscar Munoz using the word re-accommodate in his initial statement?

“Until [the Brady situation] becomes an official issue and [the NFL] responds, I’d sit back, use social listening tools and monitor the situation,” said Ken Peterson, communications director, Monterey Bay Aquarium, speaking of the Patriots. Another communicator agreed, adding, "The [football] season hasn't even started. This story will get regional play and then fade away."

Late today, after the above interviews were finished and as we were about to transmit this post, the NFL responded to the Brady story. “We have reviewed all reports relating to Tom Brady from the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants and certified athletic trainer spotters who worked at Patriots' home and away 2016 season games as well as club injury reports that were sent to the league office,” the NFL said in a statement.

“There are no records that indicate that Mr. Brady suffered a head injury or concussion, or exhibited or complained of concussion symptoms. Today we have been in contact with the NFLPA and will work together to gather more information from the club's medical staff and Mr. Brady. The health and safety of our players is our foremost priority and we want to ensure that all our players have and continue to receive the best care possible.”

Did the NFL do the right thing by releasing a statement? Perhaps. As Robert Hastings, EVP, CCO, Bell Helicopter, said prior to the NFL's statement being released, “The hard part with crisis response is that there’s a little bit of science to it, but it’s much more of an art. I hate to say it, but there are times you just have to take a breath and go, “Feels like [we should] jump in and fight it [and other times it] feels like, [we should say] let’s see where it’s going.” It’s a hard call to make sometimes.” Indeed.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein