Lessons Learned From 17 Years of Crisis Post-Mortems

By Katie Paine / March 29, 2023

The format of “Image Patrol,” my regular column in PR News, is that I do post-mortems on two different crises affecting two different organizations. Based on publicly available information, I analyze and compare their responses and assign them a letter grade based on the following criteria:

  • Extent of coverage
  • Effectiveness of spokespeople
  • Communication of key messages
  • Management of negative messages
  • Impact on shareholders
  • Impact on customers
  • Impact on employees

Then I offer advice to other people who might find themselves in similar crisis circumstances.

Recently I went back and reviewed my old “Image Patrol” columns. The first thing I noticed is that 17 years of crises is a lot of bad publicity. Here are some of the other more obvious patterns:

  1. Asshole: bad. Nice guy: good.

With a team of researchers and a semester to work on it, I could probably prove that if your CEO or organization acts like an asshole, then it’s bad for the bottom line. And, conversely, if you are open and honest, then you can survive a crisis more easily. Wait a minute, other researchers have already proved this.

  1. Being proactive is almost always more effective than being reactive.

In one of my earliest columns, I applauded Nabisco for getting in front of a budding crisis by sending a “Cookie Inspector” into a classroom to publicly count chips. This was a very effective way to quell a budding controversy doubting their claim that there were 1,000 chips in each bag.

  1. Authenticity and openness wins every time.

Organizations, and specifically their spokespeople who are open, authentic, and forthcoming, invariably end up on the higher end of the grading curve. Remember Under Armour’s crisis at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics? No? Neither did I. That’s a sign of a crisis well-handled. Under Armour suits were blamed for the U.S. speed skating teams’ loss, but thanks to the company’s excellent communications and faithfulness to their mission and messages, the issue soon blew over. Not so much for any number of companies like Exxon, Duke Energy, Lululemon, Theranos, and dozens more that tried to deny, prevaricate, waffle, or bluster their way out.

  1. It usually comes down to how good the CEO is.

In almost every one of my columns, there’s at least one sentence about how effective (or clueless) the CEO is. Sometimes it’s a culture that bears the unmistakable mark of the CEO’s personality (like Turing Pharmaceuticals and Uber). Other times it’s the ineptitude of a CEO in communicating a key message in the face of a crisis (the poster child is BP’s Tony Hayward). CEOs are in some way to blame for at least 50% of all the organizations that I have given a failing score.

  1. Action equals credibility. Silence produces skepticism.

When organizations took direct action to ameliorate a problem or made a bold move to counter negative perceptions, the crisis invariably went away faster than for organizations that did not take action. When CEOs and PR people stayed silent, the negative publicity increased (think Boy Scouts and Ryder Cup).

  1. To err is human. To admit it is better.

In one of the more interesting columns, I compared one company’s handling of a crisis before and after they admitted they were wrong and said they were sorry. When a Total Fina oil tanker broke up off the coast of France in 2000, the CEO’s first response was, “We have no legal responsibility.” Needless to say, all hell broke loose. Shortly thereafter the company did a complete about face, apologized, and offered to pay for the cleanup. Soon the CEO was touring the beaches with a forgiving press in tow. “Mea culpa” trumps “We didn’t do it.”

  1. The bigger the target, the more likely the crisis.

In case after case, I’ve seen a crisis follow a major publicity move. Or, to put another way, the more effective you are at generating attention to your organization, event, or happening, the more inevitable the negative coverage. Just compare the Facebook IPO with NASDAQ’s trading glitch. Everyone remembers the Facebook part, but the NASDAQ piece, not so much. That’s because Facebook was trying to get as much publicity as possible prior to the IPO. And when the process of the IPO blew up, they played the blame game. In the meantime, NASDAQ stayed in the background and took full responsibility.

  1. It’s not how bad your news is, it’s how bad you are at handling it.

As I reviewed all those old columns, one of the more startling revelations was that there were numerous cases of people actually dying as a result of an organization’s actions, as when a child died at Home Depot, and when people died at a riot for coupons at Ikea. Ikea was so good at managing the crisis that the negative publicity was kept to a minimum. But, astoundingly, as good as the crisis management was in traditional media, there was no response in social media. In case after case, organizations either didn’t consider or didn’t adequately prepare for a backlash on social media. So while there was relatively low initial coverage in traditional media, conversations in social media continued for a much longer time. Made me wonder if, in their crisis prep, they were rehearsing for that eventuality too much, and not enough for a social media kerfuffle.

  1. The more you talk, the less investors will walk.

I can imagine that there are Investor Relations (IR) people and lawyers who might question this, but, at least for the public companies I’ve studied, the more they were open and honest, the less the impact of a crisis was felt on their stock price. And, in fact, there’s great research about it (check out Dr. Ernest Martin’s “Timing Retail Investor Communications with Wave Theory”).

  1. If you want to polish up an image, you need to start with real silver.

That was my conclusion when I compared NASA and Major League Baseball. NASA was reeling from a series of flops and MLB was reeling from the steroid scandal. NASA’s heritage and enduring reputation helped it recover. For MLB, not so much.

  1. It’s all in the recovery.

Remember when Lenovo had to admit that their new computer “bloatware” could actually open up your PC to hackers? Didn’t think you would, because the company responded within hours with a fix and the issue disappeared. Contrast that with what happened when Domenico Dolce, one of the founders of Dolce & Gabbana, was quoted describing children conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF) as “synthetic,” and expressed disapproval of same-sex families. Elton John, who is raising two children conceived via IVF, went ballistic and called for a boycott of D&G. D&G’s response was to attack the attackers. D&G sales plummeted.

  1. Data-driven is better than ego-driven.

That was my conclusion from a comparison of two more recent crises, the Planned Parenthood videos and Bill Cosby. Cosby played it old school, denying and keeping quiet. Planned Parenthood used data and lots of it to silence the more credible mainstream media.

  1. There is no difference between “social” and “traditional” media.

A remarkable number of crises, especially earlier in this century, could be squarely laid at the feet of social media. Or, rather, blamed on the organizational or brand being clueless about (or ignoring) social media. No doubt because internal silos put walls, and sometimes sidewalks and roads, between the PR teams and the social/digital teams.

  1. Respond to a crisis in the medium in which it began.

That was my conclusion in numerous crises, but most notably for Susan G. Komen. Their crisis erupted on Twitter, and yet the CEO (yes another one) responded with a terrible video. All organizations that have been the victim of a Tweetstorm are much better off when they respond first on Twitter, rather than talking to the media or doing a YouTube video.

  1. There are consequences, so be prepared.

In probably half the crises I’ve written about there are follow-on news items announcing either an investigation, firing, jail time, or lawsuits. So what appears to “a crisis” is actually the beginning of a larger series of connected events. The lesson is that it pays to be prepared and, if at all possible, to nip a crisis in the bud. ∞

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