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Ten Land Mines to Avoid in Your Next Crisis (one through five)

Crises come in all forms and sizes, from global product recalls to local political scandal, the nuisance law suit about spilled hot coffee at a fast food restaurant, corporate malfeasance, alleged embezzlement in a not-for-profit, sexual harassment issues, hazardous waste spills, to manufacturing, transportation or other accidents that take human lives.

Skilled public relations professionals have been dealing with these issues and more for decades. They have honed best practices and tempered them under fire, increasing the odds of success in any crisis program. Good advice and case histories abound. But advances in how the world communicates instantly and in living color (photos Tweeted from cell phones, drive-by videos of transgressions, amateur news casts, rumors in the blogosphere, a consumer issue going viral via Twitter, etc.) have added new complexities to the art and science of crisis communications. The race is increasingly to the swift and, as detailed later, the trustworthy.

But extreme dangers are hidden along any path to success in managing a crisis. In analyzing failed or derailed crisis programs in over 30 years in public relations and journalism, certain approaches and characteristics stand out.  The list could go on forever. For focus, we’ve narrowed the key reasons for failure down to the top ten (or bottom ten as the case may be) most threatening land mines to any crisis program. Individually, not every land mine can be fatal. But one blast can lead to another, making the goal of getting through the crisis unscathed unlikely or impossible. Almost all can be dealt with honestly and strategically. Knowing they exist is a start. Start tip-toeing here with the first five of ten landmines to avoid in your next crisis, with six through ten to be posted next week:

1. Guilty (or not completely innocent)

The evidence exists – against the company, CEO, employee, organization, product, or service – for an illegal action, horrible occurrence, affront to humanity, threat to public safety or other transgression. The crisis management team needs to implement its plan, starting with a quick review of your crisis check. The team analyzes the crisis in context and with a host of factors before determining the response, including developing a clear understanding of the legal ramifications and liabilities. Being totally guilty requires a different response than being guilty on some counts or a single count, not totally without blame or possibly the victim of circumstance. There is also intent. A major fast food company didn’t intend for its customers to be felled by e coli. The crisis was an aberration. The company had solid food preparation processes, procedures and rules in place, so was able to turn the tide fairly quickly after an initial 30-percent decline in its stock. Another food preparation company that had poor processes in its plant and a history of  being cited regularly by health inspectors for unsanitary conditions hired the most expensive crisis counselors in the country. It tried to spin its way out of the harsh light of media scrutiny with pledges of future adherence to the law, firing people and even giving portions of future sales to minority training programs.  It lacked the culture, history, core values and other attributes (see below) to escape. Customers fled, contracts were cancelled and it soon filed for bankruptcy.

2. No Plan

When issues arise, the best organizations pull out a well-rehearsed crisis plan and implement quickly, confidently and successfully. Should any uncertainties or ambiguities exist, the crisis team and its consultants deal with them effectively as additions to the plan, rather than as another set of distractions for the unplanned and clueless. In the halls of the unprepared, staff is usually found ricocheting off walls in search of enlightenment in between panicked calls to the lawyers or searching local directories for crisis communications counselors. Plans include proven processes, clear marching orders, strict lines of communication and access to an array of supporting evidence. The above mentioned food company with the good reputation, culture and core values had built but not launched Web sites to deal with worst case scenarios in its industry, including e coli outbreaks. The sites included an overview of each area of potential concern, their history of managing in each area and abundant evidence to support each claim, plus links to outside resources, such as government agencies, academicians and independent consumer groups. Crises happen. If an organization is ready with its own plug-and-play plan, everyone will sleep a lot easier before the crisis, during and through the post mortem when the team gives high-fives around the room and pops a cork of bubbly to toast its success.

3. Lack of Culture, No Core Values

Authentic culture and values contribute to reputation for the long term. If you haven’t thought about your reputation, exhibiting positive core values and demonstrating proof of principle over time (walking the talk) as a part of organizational strategy long before the crisis hits, you will start below ground zero when the bomb lands, no matter how good your plan. Positive reputations aren’t spun out of air or the CEO’s frontal lobe on short notice. They are built over time. The leaders in any niche or category determine what they stand for and then provide ongoing evidence over time to support the position. Good companies operate in the no-spin zone, relying on corporate culture, solid facts, quality people, honesty and integrity to carry the day (week, month, year, decade).

4. Big Hat, No Cattle

Do you have a corporate history of hype or muddled communications strategies?  In a crisis, the media will launch quick database research to see how you’ve been covered in the past, by whom and in what context. The sharpest writers will then check with your peers, trade associations, professional organizations, former law and accounting firms. Marginal companies who haven’t dealt with Land Mine No. 2 – core values – often leave a trail of disgruntled professional service firms who served them previously and can now be used as a source in the gruesome discovery process. Lack of credible data and substance become apparent quickly. The first blood is let. With no redeeming values, countervailing evidence from the empty suits at the management level or even a marginal reputation to cast doubt on the charges, the media feeding frenzy begins. Each day brings a new report of chicanery and spin, driving the organization toward Armageddon in the C Suite. At this stage, the organization needs to evoke the Metamorphosis Gambit (sometimes called the Nuclear Option), which involves management change, reorganization, new strategic planning and total repositioning.

Gable PR witnessed this phenomenon when representing a small company with brilliant technology that had been acquired by a billion-dollar company for its stock, which had gone up rapidly based on the company’s regular announcement of exciting new business initiatives into the hottest new markets. However, the company was playing it fast and loose with its business strategies and corporate culture, or lack of same. The media found evidence of bribery by the parent in securing a telecommunications contract with a third world country and almost every one of the much-hyped major acquisitions in pursuit of more revenues and a higher price earnings ratio had turned sour or tanked. Negative coverage ravaged the stock price. Its potential acquisition by a Fortune 500 company was canceled. The company eventually paid huge fines on some of its transgressions, wiped out its executive suite where the transgressions had originated, took huge write-offs on its discontinued operations and announced a new vision for the future. Following its metamorphosis, the company was acquired by another conglomerate, although at a lower valuation than had been anticipated years earlier.

5. CEO Ego

CEOs can have egos as big as the Ritz and think he or she is a natural media star. They refuse to train, rehearse or follow a script or plan. They ignore the gravity of the situation and think they can charm and spin their way out of the morass. Some when CEOs bully their internal staffs into being afraid to provide authentic, sincere counsel. The prototype: MBAs out of central casting, with neatly coiffed presidential hair touched with streaks of grey, a solid jaw, sharp blue eyes, resonant voice and engaging smile, but dumb as a trout when it came to media relations. They are confident they can charm anyone. “I could talk a dog off a meat wagon,” one CEO bragged. Unfortunately, he was already in trouble, having failed two of the earlier tests listed above about culture and providing evidence. The media had done its due diligence and quickly probed into the details of declining sales, escalating administrative costs and high turnover. Without training and having his core messages set, he was caught unawares and folded like a thin tent in a hurricane. He actually started sweating and fidgeting, like the character in a Saturday Night Live skit who was being interviewed by a faux Mike Wallace for selling defective whoopee cushions. Our CEO tried to use his booming voice to make points, then stonewalled and finally tried to change the subject. The reporter kept asking the same question in different ways until she had what she wanted, then hopped off the meat wagon with a little Filet Mignon and hot sauce for her readers.

Next (six through ten)

Attorneyitis, Torpor at the Top, Dueling Fiefdoms, Stuck in Jargon Land, No Comment

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