Undoubtedly 2010 has been the year of the mega crisis, which as the Guardian’s City editor, Richard Wachman recently commented [when talking about BP’s reaction to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill] provide ‘a textbook example of how not to do things and will be studied by students of PR for years to come’.
Not suprisingly, the PR advice from Wachman is to be high profile and apologise. If only life was that simple – after all, we’ve decades of case study advice plus thousands of online comments to ensure we know “how not to do things”, without the examples of BP, Toyota, Tiger Woods, the governments of Haiti and Chile – and many more to guide us.
I’d like to propose a few alternate lessons to be gained from the 2010 year of the mega crisis.
- It is more important to solve a problem than chase tweets. Okay, so BP’s crisis may have been one of the top topics on Twitter this year – with the spoof @bpglobalpr account gaining over 180,000 followers and dominating the social media space. But what really stopped the flow of chat as well as oil, was fixing the problem. Until the PR folk could communicate a reliable solution, clearly and accurately, speculation and media distractions were certain to dominate. This highlights the importance of being able to be open about the nature of a problem and explain the steps being taken to address it – without denial, over-promising or avoiding the ongoing consequences in the meantime.
- Knowing how to solve a problem is not enough. Toyota, like most vehicle manufacturers has established processes for dealing with product recalls. It is an engineering led company which likes to evaluate risk, understand the cause of a situation and execute a remedy according to protocols and procedures. This highlights the dangers of rationale management – since dealing with human reactions to accidents and perceptions of risk means understanding that people are emotional and irrational. A lot of what was written about the Toyota acceleration/brake problem was illogical from a technical perspective – and the risk of accidents was statistically very low. But the company was seen not to care and hence its reputation for reliability and quality has been tarnished. Nevertheless, ensuring that a fix was available and communicating this direct to customers helped prevent ongoing coverage. What was also beneficial for Toyota was having strong relationships with expert automotive media and influencers who could communicate what the organisation was doing and help put the crisis into context.
- The person in charge is not always the best spokesperson. There was only one person responsible for Tiger Woods’ woes in 2010 and that was Tiger Woods. Although I’m not convinced this was really a public relations crisis (as opposed to a private one between Tiger, his wife and his sponsors), calls for Tiger to speak up revealed that he is not really the best person to convey his contrition. The public and the media didn’t really get the type of soul-baring that is expected as part of the modern apologia recipe. Tiger just doesn’t have the pizzazz or the personality for the Oprah sofa of redemption. Similarly Toyota President Akio Toyoda and BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward were the wrong choice, particularly for the US public and media. Traditional PR advice is that the man at the top should be seen to take charge – but this ignores the fact that some people do not have the required skills or that there may be cultural issues affecting their credibility. Having a top team with the right person for the right time in any crisis is surely better for corporate responses. In the case of Tiger – I still maintain keeping quiet was going to be his best option.
- Look for the positive in moments of crisis. The abiding images of the tragic earthquake in Haiti and the mining disaster in Chile tell human stories of survival. Who could forget the amazing smile on the face of seven year old Kiki Joachim as he was rescued – arms outstretched in joy? Or the parade of Chilean miners brought to us in real time via 24 hour news and Twitter updates? Not all crises have a silver lining, but without trivialising a serious situation, public relations practitioners need to ensure good news is heard. This is even more important post-crisis, when anniversaries and inquiries bring the story back to the news agenda. The public want to know that money donated has been used to good effect, that organizational problems have been resolved, that remedies put in place and hope replaced despair. The immediate crisis may have abated, but that doesn’t mean the PR work is over – in fact, the recovery of reputation requires communications and relationship building.
- Recognise chaos and complexity in crisis planning and management. The public and media appreciate that travel can be disrupted – by volcanic ash clouds, extreme snow conditions, strikes and other god or manmade causes. What increasingly makes such situations escalate into mega crises is a lack of recognition of chaos and complexity in planning for the known unknown. Most importantly, public relations practitioners need to take responsibility for wider communications beyond the occasional update to media or via online/social media. The public have the power of being able to communicate the reality of their experiences – and they invariably complain that they are not kept informed or treated like paying customers by travel companies (be that airlines, airports or others in this sector). My own experience of sitting in a two-hour queue before the check-in at Eurotunnel before Christmas (the second year the operation had entered crisisland), was of a woeful lack of communications – through mainsteam media, online or face to face on the ground. Expect the unexpected – ensure real people are providing accurate updates and enable people to make informed decisions about the solutions they find acceptable.
Undoubtedly the modern world comprises Beck’s risk society with numerous hazards which impact on communities, organizations and individuals. From a public relations perspective, some of these have the potential to develop into crisis and in a 24:7 global communications environment, the immediacy and interconnectedness of mobile, online and social media are able to amplify what might otherwise be issues of low or no significance. This occurs often before mainstream media, organizations, or professional activists have a chance to plan their involvement and react. As such it is vital that public relations practitioners recognise and respond to the reality that crisis management occurs in an increasingly dynamic and complex environment.
Not all crisis situations we face are on the mega scale of those hitting the headlines in 2010 – but within our micro-worlds, it has never been easier for attention to hone in on things that go wrong. Social media and global reach present new challenges – but ensuring problems are resolved (long-term), keeping a sense of perspective and recognising that rational responses are inadequate in complex, dynamic environments are my key recommendations rather than simply speaking up and saying sorry.