PR lessons from 2010 – the year of the mega crisis

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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15 Replies to “PR lessons from 2010 – the year of the mega crisis

  1. Heather, in both the traditional media and (now) social media, it seems like journalists and twits are very quick to seize on the words “crisis” and “disaster,” especially in regards to a company or individual’s (e.g., Tiger Woods) “PR” or lack thereof efforts. (PR crisis. PR disaster.)

    In your opinion, what constitutes a PR crisis? And what needs to happen to the crisis to escalate into a “disaster.” Does length of time it is “in the news” or big on the interwebs play a role? Short- or long-term impact on an organizational brand (and, by extension, sales)?

    In my opinion, both of these words are misused or misconstrued, more often than they are done correctly. (In particular, I’m thinking of the viral video some rogue Domino’s Pizza employees made in 2009, after which so many “online pizza ambulance chasers” were dumping all over the company for its lack of efforts. The cover article in PRSA’s The Strategist certainly put an end to those misconceptions: Domino’s delivers during crisis: The company’s step-by-step response after a vulgar video goes viral)

    FYI, when Jeff Anselm appeared on CTV Canada AM to do a segment, it was referred to as “2010’s top corporate blunders.” (I’m not sure if that was his choice of words or the producer.) I think in most cases (BP definitely not included!), we saw more “corporate blunders” in 2010 than “crises” or “disasters.” Agree or disagree?

    1. Good questions and I agree that there is increasing over-reaction to any management faux-pas particularly among social media-ites. ‘PR experts’ love to be seen as commenting and lazy journalists roll them out for easy articles.

      I am not sure that BP and Toyota simply experienced corporate blunders. Both had real operational problems and probably would have thought their standard crisis communications approaches were sufficient to handle these. In Toyota’s case, they did have a clear solution to the problem, the issue became the noise around this with emotional reactions (and some spurious claims of incidents) getting in the way of a routine recall. They crisis then became about the initial denial (apparently) of a problem and the communications between US and Japan, and with rest of world. In BP’s case, they allowed the technical problem to be the issue as they seemed incapable of stopping the leak, and unable to clarify that their approach needed to be a series of test solutions. Again they failed to take on the wider issue, in this case the pollution and allowed the US government and others to take control of the solution and the message. All compounded in both cases by poor senior management communications.

      Although these two were corporate crisis situations initially, they did become PR crises as neither seemed to master the public communications, relationship and reputational aspects. Neither, as of yet, is a corporate or PR disaster in my view. I believe disastrous means some fundamental, possibly terminal outcome or impact. That’s not to say that an initial crisis cannot lead to a decline in trust, difficulties getting finance, employing good people, loss of customer loyalty and a spiral of decline.

      This would be an organisational disaster as opposed to a PR disaster. I suppose that would be when the organisation was totally unable to communicate effectively etc – but the solution to a PR disaster is surely just better PR – provided the senior management understood what that meant.

      BTW, in a chapter on PR’s role in risk, issues and crisis management which I’ve just written for the 4th edition of Theaker’s PR Handbook, I’ve cited McClusker’s definition of a ‘PR disaster’ as ‘anything that could catalyse embarrassing or negative publicity for any given organization’. This is quite general, but I was using it to support the use of ‘PR disaster’ in situations when PR is held responsible for organisational problems that are outside its control (as per the Domino’s example).

      I’ve used Coombs’ definition of a crisis as ‘the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens the important expectations of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes’. Again open to discussion especially as I feel the term ‘crisis’ is probably a subjective one – so a bit like beauty in terms of being in the eye of the beholder. If someone thinks it is a crisis then to them perhaps that is so. But that doesn’t mean the organisation has to agree and react as if a problem is a disaster.

  2. Hi Heather,

    You make an interesting point about those in charge not always being an appropriate spokesperson. I suspect some might disagree! The danger of course is attracting criticism for not taking an active interest. If there really is a problem (e.g. cultural), do you think that perhaps there are alternative ways of presenting the spokesperson’s comments in order to avoid potential pitfalls?


    1. Tom, I am not advocating those in charge shouldn’t take an active interest but they may not always be the best spokesperson. My belief is that the CEO could establish their control of a situation by publicly heading up a team and clarifying key roles. They need to be seen to be in charge by appointing relevant experts as appropriate be that technical or say cultural. It would seem the US in particular doesn’t respond well to non-US spokespeople, so BP or Toyota could have had a competent and senior US American appointed as the lead spokesperson, provided the CEO/president speaks at the most senior level eg to the White House (again probably with clear support of the team).

      Mind you, if the US is responding negatively to the fact that the top person is not ‘one of them’, that is more worrying as surely it would be discriminatory (and ridiculous) to respond as BP has in appointing an American as CEO just to respond to such cultural bigotry.

  3. You touch upon the central point of risk communication: That one must never confuse the hazard (the actual threat to life, health, property or peace of mind) with the outrage (a community’s response to the hazard). This is where “rational” companies like Toyota get tripped up. They believe calming an angry public is merely a matter of fixing the problem or explaining the situation more clearly. That, of course, never works. To mitigate outrage, you must address the outrage. It’s an emotional issue, not an logical one.

    1. Absolutely agree Rusty. I think we have to expect outrage even when it is not justified. Consequently I think it becomes important to distinguish those whose concerns and fears should be addressed as a priority – where the solution is actually important. In Toyota’s case, talking direct with customers to explain what could, and was being done was vital. Likewise this is what the travel companies are not doing and BP seemed to miss with engaging local communities and politicians.

      The outrage of those not directly involved is interesting. In the media’s case and for many online commentators, over-reaction gets attention. I believe there comes a point (sometimes immediately) when engaging this outrage is not the best move. When Toyota had a fix and customers were well informed, it could let the outrage subside rather than keep it going. The focus should then be on engaging calmly with politicians who were the next priority. Longer term it has a reputational issue to manage but that is probably best done away from the chaos of the crisis.

      Sometimes it seems like there are toddler-like tantrums increasingly around these mega-crises and in the PR toolkit we need to not always reward such pseudo-outrage.

      1. I just had a discussion on Twitter with @jgombita about the Toyota case as I personally do see it more as a disaster or a really big mistake than a blunder. I do not have much experience with crisis communication, though I do know this case pretty well.

        Last year when I was still in uni, me and some of my classmates made up a post crisis campaign on the situation of Toyota. Though we did not have inside access, so we read all that we could read about it in several languages.

        I agree with Rusty in terms of that you should make “confuse the hazard with the outrage”. Toyota’s case got blown out of proportions in the media, while other car manufacturers had the same problem but did not get as much attention as Toyota. Thing what I found really bad in this case is that the communication from within the organization was very different between the countries. Of course you need to consider cultural differences, though it is strange if one press release claims there have been no accidents at all caused by the problems and another says that there are cases known that accidents could have been caused by the problems. These are two different key messages, and they differ between several countries. Though I haven’t read them in all languages (10 countries in total) but the fact that they contradict themselves in the press releases seems to me they did make a mistake in their PR.

        As for the car problems itself, I am not a mechanic so I cannot judge how bad the technical problems were.

        1. Janette – thanks for your thoughts. You are right that the Toyota recall scenario is standard practice in the industry and one experienced by many major manufacturers at the same time during 2010. That is why I believe the wider social and cultural context of the motor industry in the US was significant – with its domestic producers experiencing financial difficulties, the opportunity to pile on the Japanese rival (which ironically produces vehicles in the US) was an open goal to media and politicians.

          Nevertheless, there are lessons we can learn from Toyota as you highlight in terms of globalisation and the ways in which information flows through organisations. My own belief is that this is where internal networks are vital and the ability of PR practitioners who are not in markets directly affected (ie most of Toyota in Europe) to translate a story in a relevant way for a specific country is key.

          I am sure there was a level of centralised communication – and it is likely that this was rather general, resulting in local PR teams addressing questions they faced on the ground in potentially different ways. I can imagine that if there have been no incidents in your particular country, that is the fact that you wish to highlight. However, I believe the fact the reported incidents occurred in the US put a complexity on the situation as any comments made anywhere could be brought into a legal case in due course.

          The extent to which contraditions occuring in separate countries is relevant of course depends on whether or not these are connected. Your study looked at different countries, but how many people do this? Despite global communications, we need to remember most people are very interested in their own backyard and how they are affected. So a global reputation may be tarnished, but you may still like your local dealer and trust your particular model – hence feel that the problems were US specific and not relevant to your own decisions.

          These things are always more complicated than reducing them to a case study is able to convey.

  4. First of all I wish to congratulate Heather, Judy and Markus for the quality, much improved since my time.., of the overall contribution of prconversations to our professional discourse worldwide.

    Keep it up..make it the song goes and happy new year..

    This post is very wise and savvy, and there is nothing I could disagree.

    Which, however, brings up the question: what is new? Possibly it is the last point you make, the one that relates to chaos and complexity.

    As you might expect, I cannot resist the temptation to refer to the rationalization effort that led to the Stockholm Accords.

    Since its inception I have encountered countless cases in which a full appreciation of its sense would have been highly beneficial to the organizations involved and to society.

    The acknowledgment and understanding of the roles that public relations professionals can deliver today (internal, external and alignment of communication practices) to add value to the organization’s sustainability, governance and management efforts is, in my view of course, a relevant added value our profession has been able to conceptualise during the course of 2010.

    1. Heather: I concur with Toni’s comments about your end year synopsis of 2010. Liked the reference to Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”.

    2. Thanks for the kind words. What’s new? In one sense, nothing. Crises have always been complex and chaotic despite the attempts to simplify them with recommended responses in case studies and linear models. What is new is the potential scale and evermore proactive involvement of publics in any crisis. So this needs PR practitioners (and the media who increasingly comment on crisis situations re PR responses) to stop relying on mantras of ‘tell it all, tell it now’ or golden rules/commandments etc that can be applied as a remedy to any and every situation.

      If the Stockholm Accords provide a more robust set of tools then the challenge for 2011 is to ensure these are accessible in terms of being adopted and applied. Their current form is not going to engage practitioners or media in understanding there is a ‘new’ approach available. So what are the next steps for the Accords?

      1. I am not sure I understand your use of the term tools.

        Let me give you the example I know best:
        In Italy, since September, Ferpi has recruited some 60 colleagues to collaborate in the implementation of the accords.

        We launched a survey monkey that gave us the following results

        Also, but not only, on the basis of these results, the five working sub groups (business, professional,education, media and tourism communities) have come up with a full program of implementation featuring specific arguments to be advocated during 2011 on the basis of a 100.000 euro budget that we are in the process of collecting from volunteers and donors (5.000 from individuals and small consultancies, 10.000 from agencies, businesses).
        Before end January we will train at least 5 of the 60 to go around the country for a road show to argue the accords story to all our members.

        In parallell at least two major corporations (one industrial one consumer) have undertaken a gap analysis between their current public relation policies and the contents of the accords and plan to shorten eventual excessive differences reuslting from that gap analysis.

        Also, all association professional training and education activities in collaboration with universities have begun to advocate accord contents as horizontal to all various learning initiatives.

        Finally Ferpi has gathered and leads a permament working group with nine other professional associations (auditors, analysts, csr specialists, finance diresctors, internal auditors, accountants…) to work on the integrated reporting process advocated by the accords in parallel with the IIRC (international integrated reporting committee) and has agreed to participate to the Biennale della Democrazia next April in Torino by organizing and promoting two public discussions focussed on value of organizational relationships to contemporary democracy.

        Would you say these are tools? If not, please help….

        1. Toni,

          My use of the word ‘tools’ was in respect of whether or not the Stockholm Accords will be developed in such a way that they provide techniques and other means of guidance that could be of specific use to practitioners (and academics).

          You have kindly clarified how the Accords are being developed in Italy – which as you indicate will presumably lead to recommendations for implementation. However, it seems this is still at the conceptual level in terms of getting buy-in from practitioners.

          Of course, the gap analysis in the two organisations is useful to consider application – is there yet a simple check list to help others undertake a gap analayis or is that a proposed outcome from the Italian work?

          Interesting that you state “all association professional training and education activities in collaboration with universities have begun to advocate accord contents as horizontal to all various learning initiatives.” Not sure exactly what this means in practice – in the UK, I have not seen anything beyond initial reporting of the Accords. CIPR has not yet provided guidance on how the Accords relate to existing practice – and they have not reflected them in the syllabus or otherwise in their professional qualifications.

          Of course, as someone who is not in favour of linear or prescriptive approaches – I would hope that the Stockholm Accords are not being presented as a single or set way to behave. The outcomes will presumably allow flexibility for variation of situation and organization/culture – as well as accommodating changing circumstances both in practice and in theoretical understanding.

          1. Heather why must there always be someone telling someone else what to do?

            The accords are a brief for every one of us to develop and implement according to one’s own whim. They will be changed as we go along and remain as a point of refernece for anyone who wishes to argue the value s/he brings to organizations and society.

            In the UK for example, contrary to what you say, not only has a new consultancy been created on the basis of the accords, not only have the internal communicators of the cipr dwelled in a very interesting dicussion on their blog, but the IIRC (Prince Charles et al) has embraced integrated reporting that, as you know, is one of the founding elements of the accords while the govt has announced that all central depts will need to deliver integrated reporting as from this year (lots of work there if our british colleagues are up to the challenge..).

            In Portugal pr academics are changing their curricula, as well as in South Africa.

            If you visit our hub you will be able to see examples of partial implementation from many other countries.

            This in no way means that the project is a full blown success.
            To the contrary, it risks not being one until professionals, academics and students continue to wait for tools that they must create themselves and report on so that we can all learn from each other…

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