PR crisis case studies in real time

Open any public relations textbook and the section on crisis management will include examples of how organisations have demonstrated “best” or “worst” practice.  And, it’s not just the textbooks, as recent incidents (eg Tiger Woods or Toyota) have seen plenty of advice from PR “experts” through online and social media.  But, just as with the dead tree versions, these case studies are simplistic fictions.

Heroes and villains are the main narrative, with a modernist approach reinforcing a recommended crisis management strategy.  There’s just one way to communicate during a crisis – regardless of the organisation, the situation, the social context or the significance of the incident.

This is the Tylenol way – presented as the right approach thanks to the swift action taken by Johnson & Johnson.  The reality (as previously clarified at PR Conversations as a misleading myth) isn’t allowed to get in the way of the lesson.  After all, it promotes a way that PR, and organisational management, can be in control and preserve reputation through a few simple steps.

Every case study reinforces the mantra – Exxon Valdez is presented as the epitome of poor crisis management; too slow to respond.  Likewise Coca Cola and the Belgium “mass hysteria” case.  Whilst the Pepsi “needle in a can” crisis is hailed, Perrier‘s benzene example is criticised.

The nature of textbooks is that authors synthesise cases into easy to understand advice that students can repeat in assignments, and practitioners can recall if they ever find themselves handling a crisis.

It’s a comfort blanket of how to…, what not to do…, common mistakes and miracle cures.

In the social media world of 24:7 global connections, the right way is repeated – only at warp speed.  Tell it fast becomes tell it before you know anything.  Tell it all means let the media and its rent-a-quote experts speculate about worst case scenarios.  Be open – means unlimited social media engagement (regardless of what the legal or other ramifications may be).

Have the CEO (or celebrity if a personal faux pas has occurred) lead communications with mandatory appearances on chatshows, a tour of news stations,  and a YouTube apology.  Mea culpa – the universal panacea: “I’m sorry if…” – anyone resisting the calls is bullied until they comply.  The pound of flesh must be paid.

They have to apologise publicly even if what’s occurred is a matter of private relations or affects only a few people – who could be communicated with directly, where contrition would be far more sincere and genuine.

Everyone is a critic – retweeting endlessly, without checking the veracity of any source.  Citizen journalism enables individual examples to be retold and extrapolated, without any attempt at verification if used by journalists and treated as absolute fact by social media networks.

Crisis case studies in real time seem little different to those that have been carefully crafted for retelling in the textbooks.  There is little evidence of the public relations profession reflecting or considering how cases could be handled differently in a post-modernist, complex and chaotic world.

A few authors, such as Dawn Gilpin and Priscilla Murphy (Crisis Communications in a Complex World), challenge the simplification of turbulent reality.  Isn’t it time that their views were at least presented alongside the “only way” propaganda that is taught on PR courses and espoused in both academic and practitioner texts?

And even more important – shouldn’t more of us be speaking out against those PR and media experts influencing public and client expectations with naive views based on an unrealistic belief that all crisis situations can be easily managed and controlled?

Let’s have more real life PR case studies that actually reflect the real time nature of managing contemporary crises.  And we all might learn something new.

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4 Replies to “PR crisis case studies in real time

  1. The key to making progress on this issue is to convince clients that they need more nerve, more balls. Bad publicity rarely matters much in an age in which all reputations are regularly trashed. Memories are as short as attention spans. Consumers are forgiving.

    Good reputations are based on innovation, delivery on promises and require a certain arrogance based on success (El Buli, Ryanair, Apple, Toyota and much more).

    Moreover, virtually every analysis I have ever read from a PR crisis management expert about Three Mile Island has got it completely wrong – yet that accident is often cited as the starting point for drawing up the rules of modern crisis management strategy and tactics. So, I’d add TMI to your case study list:

  2. How right you are Heather!
    And I also take this opportunity to direct PRC readers, in case they missed it, to your ‘masterful’ (as Judy Gombita defines it) post on the Toyota case in your own blog

    What you write brings up various relevant issues.
    Here are a couple:

    I won’t even try to recollect the number of years I have been supporting all sorts of organizations in their crisis preparedness efforts.
    Never once has the crisis materialized as we had planned it.
    Superficially one could conclude ‘a waste of money and hard efforts’.
    Of course this is far from the truth…
    Simulating crisis together with relevant management and operational functions; identifying potential crisis one had never considered and putting them into context; going in depth into retrieving relevant and often unprecedented information to prepare background and position statements etc…,
    are all activities which are extremely useful (as much as collateral) to raise acknowledgement, awareness, involvement and engagement amongst management functions, thus reinforcing the inextricable, but often hidden, relationship between an organization’s communicative behaviours and its bottom line and licence to operate.

    As a sideline, I also refer to a common stereotype surrounding our profession amongst our worst detractors who accuse us for spreading anxiety in the organization and, in the extreme case, actually creating crisis to prove our worth.
    I remember, many years ago, a private conversation with the mythical CEO of one of the world’s largest consulting companies and asking him if this was in any way true (his company was badmouthed about this amongst competitors, which goes to show that the most damaging attacks come from our own, not from others…).
    He looked at me straight in the eyes and said: ‘Toni, of course we would never think of any such thing. Yet, I will tell you that only after having been really savaged by a nasty crisis does the self centred leadership of many organizations finally realize the importance of what we can bring to them…’ Honny soit qu mal y pense…

    The case study approach adopted by Business Schools, more recently migrated also into other walks of education has been continually criticized for delivering a ‘fix it all, if you do this..’ formula in a situation which, as you say, crisis never come twice the same way.
    I had initially steered away from this academic case study approach referred to public relations with the alibi that, coming from professional practice, I knew very well that in each single real case many variables affecting events could not be exposed in any public setting (think of students twittering while you lecture…).
    But I now accept that this is an imbecile approach and am returning on my steps.

    Basically, while wholeheartedly agreeing with Heather, I wish to caution myself and others on the risk of
    -on one side-
    taking a critical and uninformed position on a specific crisis without considering that each story is different and requires much knowledge (but if this was generalized then nobody would dare express oneself…an excellent idea for many….but then why do we read and comment blogs???),
    -on the other side-
    the risk that, based on detailed knowledge, we criticize the uninformed critics (in this case we would need to stop reading and, despite stereotypes and misinterpretations which are increasing at lightning speed, learning).
    To sum it up, what we would really need is a con-vincing approach to critically analyse, filter and absorb reality as it happens.
    Thank you Heather for this wake up call and of course I would hope that someone might someday devise a just divine punishment for all those idiots (begin by looking in the mirror, Toni..) who will comment on anything just for the sake of ‘being’ and, in minor cases, ‘quoted’…..

  3. Heather,

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. It seems to me that part of the problem is how case studies are constructed and used. Too often they only cover what was done well without any coverage of what was done right, let alone critical thinking about the implications. Although I have no evidence to support this, I am confident that few organizations create a space for debriefings after crisis campaigns (or others) that include a review of what could have been done better. We have become very averse to such analysis, with an unhealthy overemphasis on only looking at the positive. From the consultant’s perspective, I think this means that we are also put in a position where we are judged only on our successful case studies rather than on the methodology to foster positive outcomes, but also learning.

    This is something that concerns me a bit about our associations’ award programmes too. It’s good to recognize what has been done well, but why are we not also evaluating how feedback loops were incorporated and used to improve our work either in real-time or in future iterations? I for one believe that we learn more from our shortcomings than from our successes…precisely because what went well often relates to situational specificities whereas what went poorly often reveals the more universal truths.

    We need to learn from the wisdom of Thomas Edison, who said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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