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President’s Point: Cringe-Worthy Crisis Communications

Considering that Halloween is just around the corner, I thought it’d be interesting to discuss something that can be pretty spooky to everyone: crisis communications.

No one wants to be in the middle of a public relations crisis, but let’s face it – there’s always the possibility. What matters most in any crisis situation is that you have an effective crisis communication plan prepared. If you’re not envisioning potential crisis scenarios for your company and putting together a well thought-out communications timeline for the days, weeks and months during and after a crisis, you’re not doing it right.

Important components to have in your plan include media training, holding statements and a course of action to gather accurate details (as quickly as possible) so you can address the public, your employees, customers and all stakeholders in a timely manner. And, after crisis strikes and calms following diligent crisis communications, don’t forget to update your plan and continue to update it annually! Crisis communications is always changing in the ever-evolving landscape of news outlets and social media.

It takes a lot of time and effort to put together an effective plan, and for good reason – a poorly executed crisis communication response can result in a PR nightmare for any brand or company, big or small. If you’re looking for a few examples of what not to do in a crisis situation, here are a few cringe-worthy examples to consider.

Papa John’s Pizza

We’ll start with a brand that recently made major headlines – Papa John’s Pizza.

Founder and CEO John Schnatter, who also served as the public face of the pizza chain, came under fire in 2017 during the national anthem protests when he blamed the NFL for slowing sales at Papa John’s. However, the crisis came to a head in May of 2018 during a media training call arranged between Papa John’s executives and the marketing agency Laundry Service, which was designed as a role-playing exercise to prevent further PR blunders. When asked how he would distance himself from racist groups online, Schnatter responded by downplaying his remark toward the NFL and making other offensive remarks that included the use of the N-word. He went on to eventually resign as chairman that July.

The messy aftermath included a suit filed against the pizza chain, as well as a website launched in his defense. In response to the backlash, Papa John’s released a video on social media highlighting the criticism received by angry customers. But, what the video attempted to convey in “remorse” for the situation lacked a great deal in transparency of what Papa John’s planned to do moving forward for its customers.

When dealing with such prevalent societal issues, it’s important for brands to share how they plan to change their leadership and corporate culture, especially when there’s one person as the face of the brand. And, that’s where Papa John’s definitely missed the mark.

United Airlines

Another common crisis communication case study is the April 2017 incident with United Airlines. The crisis occurred when passenger David Dao was violently dragged off an overbooked flight, which had been captured on video and wildly circulated on social media – prompting major outrage.

While the situation should have called for an unreserved apology – no ifs, ands or buts – what transpired instead was a round of lackluster responses and apologies from CEO Oscar Munoz. In his response, Munoz only apologized for having to “re-accommodate” customers. Adding fuel to the fire, it was revealed in a leaked letter to United employees that Munoz described the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent,” claiming that employees had followed established procedures for these types of situations.

While Munoz did go on to release a full apology, it came too little too late. Time is of the essence when it comes to controlling the damage of any crisis, especially one that’s captured on video, and Munoz’s lack of sincerity and empathy for the passenger created major fallout for the airline that will certainly be looked to as an example of how not to handle crises for years to come.

BP

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by BP, exploded off the coast of Louisiana – resulting in the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history. The explosion killed 11 workers, and the rig capsized and sank into the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, releasing millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean.

It’s no question that a catastrophe of this size had – and continues to have – a profoundly terrible effect on the Gulf Coast ecosystems, residents and the families of the workers that will reverberate for years. So, the last thing you’d think these residents and families would want to hear is how this crisis is impacting the CEO. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives,” former BP CEO Tony Hayward said in response to the oil spill. “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

In the wake of a crisis, it’s essential to show empathy to those who have been wronged by the situation. The bottom line is, people don’t want to hear how badly the crisis is for the business or the CEO. Crisis communications should be centered on the people who have been negatively impacted by the crisis, and what the plan is to make things right.

Who got it right?

As a change of pace, let’s think – who got it right, and how?

Among our own team here at All Points, we know that it’s important to take control of the conversation right away in any crisis. One such example occurred when groups in Houston were challenging a movement for transgender rights. This situation brought one of our clients to the media’s attention, as a crisis involving transgender identification had transpired within one of their local businesses. The client quickly turned to the All Points team, which swiftly took control of the narrative, challenging the connection being made between Houston’s separate issue and our client. The distinction was quickly realized through conducting interviews on behalf of our client and providing statements to the press – local and national. As a result, our client was removed from the dialogue.

Another example of strong crisis communications would include the racial bias situation that Starbucks experienced last April, when two black men were arrested at a downtown Philadelphia Starbucks on suspicion of trespassing. Part of the incident was captured on video and shared to social media, earning widespread criticism.

While Starbucks certainly could have been quicker to respond, they ultimately acknowledged the situation by owning the fact that they were in the wrong, sharing their plan with the public to close all stores nationwide for racial-bias education.

There are a lot of lessons that we can soak in here – it’s just as important to understand what not to do as it is to know how to handle crisis communications when the unexpected strikes. No one wants a crisis on his or her hands, but it shouldn’t take a crisis to make a crisis plan. Expect the unexpected, never enter a crisis blind and always do what it takes to make things right – take responsibility, own the situation and show a great deal of empathy. It goes a long way.

Jamie Izaks is the president of All Points Public Relations, a franchise-focused PR agency based in the Chicagoland area, www.allpointspr.com.

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