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The ABC of corporate crisis management

Corporate crisis management has never been more important

by Dima Itani

 “May you live in interesting times.” More than ever before, this Chinese curse painfully rings true for companies treading today’s dangerous world, prone to corporate crises and scandals on a daily basis.

With the recent global economic downturn, companies worldwide have been undertaking significant cost-cutting to stay on their feet. But cutting costs means cutting corners and slacking off on quality. Last year’s melamine scandal that surfaced in China and shook the world showed us exactly what can happen when some companies are financially squeezed, when in an attempt to cut costs, dairy farmers and distributors ended up poisoning and even killing people, including infants.

The financial crisis has also contributed to a more hostile and cynical environment, with rampant mistrust that has the public ready to pounce and punish companies in the event of the slightest mishap. This is compounded by an increasingly connected public, making it much easier for scandals to break and spread, and where one frustrated customer on Twitter can cost a company millions of dollars.

In such merciless times a company mishandling its response to a crisis can mean its demise, the fittest are the ones that successfully deploy the right crisis management and communication strategy. This means following the ABCs of crisis communication, which can get a company through any ordeal with its reputation intact.

Act swiftly

Whenever there is a hint of a corporate scandal, the general inclination is to follow a “wait and see” approach, allowing the issue to unravel before deciding on the measures to be taken. Although this might seem like the reasonable thing to do, when many facts have yet to unfold and reactions have yet to emerge, a company that decides to test the waters to see how the public will react and then make a move will unmistakably be throwing itself into a blaze and is unlikely to emerge unharmed. Moving quickly is essential to mitigating the crisis, as stakeholders need to be reassured that the organization is committed to immediately investigating the issue at hand and ultimately taking the proper actions.

Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the poisonous Tylenol crisis is always used as a best practice example when it comes to acting swiftly; the company not only launched its investigations but immediately, and in parallel, sent out an instant alert about the dangers of the Tylenol product on the market at the time and recalled around 31 million bottles with a retail value of more than $100 million. Johnson & Johnson sent out a clear message that it puts customer safety first, before worrying about profit or reputation, by promptly responding to the crisis and assuming responsibility of the tampering of Tylenol although it was not directly responsible for the poisoning, and then proceeding with the complete investigation.

However, moving swiftly should certainly not imply acting brashly or responding before having reached a clear understanding of the issue, as Perrier learned the hard way. When traces of benzene were found in Source Perrier’s bottled water, the company issued a rushed explanation, which later turned out to be incorrect. This only served to undermine the company’s credibility and reputation.

Be transparent

There is no denying that transparency has become an essential value in the corporate world, with stakeholders considering it a fundamental right that companies provide them with all the information that might be of interest to them. Today, more than ever, the public holds companies accountable for their level of transparency and crises are no exception to the rule.

It is therefore imperative that, whenever a crisis emerges, the company openly acknowledges the problem, if in fact there is one, and accordingly assumes responsibility, regardless of the costs it may incur.

There have been many examples across history of companies withholding the real facts, trying to cover up the truth or spinning it in the hopes of escaping unscathed, and in almost every single case, this strategy backfired and ended up in severe and irreparable damage to their brand image, stock value and sales.

A recent example was when Coca-Cola launched Dasani water in Europe as a “pure, still” water. Soon after, the media broke the story that it was not natural spring or mineral water but purified water being sold for 3,000 times its price. Samples of the water were also found to contain a cancer-causing chemical, causing Coca-Cola to recall the product. Throughout the crisis, Coca-Cola responded to the accusations by using half-truths, issuing defensive statements denying the public concerns, and repeating its marketing messages. By spinning the truth, Coca-Cola only dragged out the crisis, made stakeholders even more wary of the company and left everyone wondering what the truth was about Dasani.

Choose the right spokesperson, message and channel

The time of a “one size fits all” approach has come and gone. This cannot be truer when it comes to crisis management. The nature of the issue, its extent and scale, who it has affected and its future repercussions, are only some elements that should imperatively determine the person who should be assigned to handle the crisis publicly. Whereas the company’s head of public relations can successfully ward off damage in a certain crisis, only the chief executive officer should address the issue in another, as the choice of spokesperson can speak volumes as to the seriousness and importance that the company is giving to the concerns of its stakeholders. In some cases, only the more knowledgeable person in the specifics of the issue should provide a direct and detailed response to the crisis.

A clear example was when the CEO of JetBlue Airways took it upon himself to address disappointed and upset customers and apologize to them, after a severe ice storm brought operations to a standstill and subjected passengers to major inconveniences. He also created a blog on the airline’s website where he personally addressed customers’ questions and interacted with them.

When it comes to communicating the right message, none can be more effective than a message of stalwart commitment to stakeholders and of placing their well-being and interests ahead of all other considerations. This implies adopting the right tone of sincere regret, apology and dismay in the case of harm that is caused by the company in one way or another. It also entails explaining the corrective measures to be put in place and, when warranted, the punitive actions that will be taken to hold those responsible to account.

Continuing with the JetBlue example, when their terminals buzzed with hundreds of disgruntled passengers and the airline was facing a maelstrom of criticism, the CEO adopted a suitable apologetic tone whereby he expressed the company’s true remorse for disrupting passengers’ schedules. He also explained how JetBlue was going to rectify the situation and emphasized that

corrective measures were going to be taken in order to avoid such problems in the future, among which was the “JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights,” the company’s commitment to its customers as to how it will handle uncontrolled operational interruptions in the future, including details of compensation.

What sets a company apart today is not whether it monitors the web and social media platforms for burgeoning crises, but whether it also successfully leverages these channels to reach, inform and reassure its stakeholders. In January 2009, the Peanut Corporation of America announced a recall of peanut butter products due to salmonella contamination.

During this crisis, a comprehensive social media campaign was rolled out, using new media channels like blogs, eCards, text messaging, podcasts, online videos, social networking sites, widgets, micro-blogs and virtual worlds such as Second Life. The crisis communication fittingly leveraged these new channels, which reached and informed consumers, successfully mitigating the crisis and eventually saving many lives.

A savvy company in today’s world is the one that not only wards off damage to its brand and reputation in the wake of a crisis but also turns it into an opportunity to strengthen bonds with stakeholders by showing deep concern and unfailing commitment to their well-being. Successfully handling a crisis takes a disciplined implementation of the basic ABC principles of crisis communication, a formula that can break the curse of our tumultuous times and turn them into fruitful ones.

Dima Itani, Zeina Loutfi& Ramsay G. NajjarS2C

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Dima Itani

Project Manager & Funded Training Programs Coordinator
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Zeina Loutfi

Zeina Loutfi works for Lebanese communication experts S2C
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Ramsay G. Najjar

Ramsay G. Najjar is founder of Lebanese communication experts S2C
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