Crisis Management: When the Shine Comes Off the Apple

In my experience, clients who’ve already come under attack by activists and the media before tend to be more understanding of the situation than you might expect. They are usually much more open to counsel, and they also tend to be more accountable and transparent than they are portrayed.

On the other hand, I’ve also had the chance to work with some organizations that until a particular crisis situation, they had been considered media darlings. Some have been popular brands, or as emerging growth companies, they had never experienced a downturn in their business to that point. Others have been organizations that have operated in a fashionable industry or sector.

That was until the shine came off the apple, so to speak, with a first major crisis of negative publicity that stunned them.

One of the more common misunderstandings when it comes to crisis communications is the issue of whether or not the organization at the center of the story actually did anything wrong.

In those instances where the company is at fault, like a product recall or a problematic decision, the course of action is relatively simple. While it still may be complicated and difficult, the way through to the other side is fairly obvious. You own up to it and communicate corrective or preventative actions. And you commit to full transparency.

What If You are Not to Blame?

What most people don’t realize, however, is the vast majority of true crisis situations are scenarios where the organization is not at fault, where it’s being falsely or errantly portrayed as being the problem. Usually, a destructive narrative has taken hold, and there’s just enough truth in it to make it very difficult for the organization to prove its innocence in the court of public opinion.

Companies and organizations who have been through this sort of thing before tend to know what to expect, and how to respond, and perhaps even more importantly how not to respond.

But if the organization at the center of a negative publicity flap has never been through this before, they can be surprised to find out their relationship with the media is not quite what they thought. This leads to soul-searching revelations for some managers that they may have been over-confident in their own charismatic qualities, or over-trusting of the media, or had a dangerous sense of invincibility.

I remember one company that was faced with a situation where a Hollywood celebrity and a group of activists were protesting one of the company’s facilities. The group attracted a swarm of media, which led to national coverage. While the company was used to receiving national media attention, what it wasn’t used to was negative national media attention.

The thing that sparked the protests was not very complicated. Management had to make some difficult cost-cutting decisions to keep its operations going. If it didn’t do so, the company’s future was at stake.

I would end up meeting with the CEO of the company to determine what we could do to help.

We had a frank conversation, and in the end, it became clear there were no easy choices. I knew that I couldn’t tell the CEO what he wanted to hear. I had to tell him to essentially take ownership of the decisions that were made, and to explain why and how those decisions were in the best interest of the employees, customers and the very future of the company.

What he wanted to hear was that there were some simple words he could say that would make everything go back to where they were before the crisis, and that the media would return to treating him and the company like rock stars.

I tried to explain that being honest, candid and frank was his best hope for doing that, but he was too preoccupied with his dilemma. There were other consultants in the room as well, each advocating a complementary strategy for HR and legal. The whole time, the CEO just looked distracted and gobsmacked.

At times like this, it’s very important to give someone in this CEO’s position a chance to process. What we couldn’t give him was more time to decide. As we spoke, a protest in another city was launched in front of one of his facilities, and the media were on hand.

After we talked about his options, with a puzzled look he just blurted out, “I thought they liked us.”

At that point, it became clear to everyone in the room that leadership was so stunned by the manner in which the media seemed to have turned on them so quickly that they couldn’t make any firm decisions on this day.

We wished the company’s managers the best and went on our way. To my knowledge, the company never did engage outside crisis communications support.

Having the Right Perspective is Readiness

Here are some things this CEO should have known before this crisis happened:

  • The more visible you become, it is more likely that at some point, your organization will face a negative publicity crisis.
  • The positive coverage you receive today, and the negative coverage you may receive someday have nothing to do with whether the media likes you or doesn’t like you.
  • No matter how positive the coverage, it is a mistake to assume that the driving force is the power of your personality or the uniqueness of your culture. If the coverage is positive, it’s because there is something about your story that supports a narrative the media wants to tell today but for whatever reasons may not want to tell tomorrow.

In short, when your organization is considered a media darling, that is the time to understand you are vulnerable to an effort by someone at some point to take it upon themselves to try to take the shine off of your reputational apple. Just understanding this will go a long way towards helping to ready you for a crisis of negative publicity.

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Posted in Corporate & Strategic Communication, Crisis & Issues Management, General, Pittsburgh, PR & Media Relations, Workplace Communications and tagged , , , , .

TimOB