I don’t know about you, but I’ve banged my hands on my desk and shouted “What were they thinking!!!” over a corporate crisis about 78 times this year.
It is easy to find fault in other people’s issues, but, as my long-time friend and mentor – Harold Burson of Burson-Marsteller – reminds me, “Never be too critical of a crisis if you’re not in the war room. You never know what variables were at play.”
He’s right. We’re not interested in kicking people when they’re down. We’re interested in helping business and communications executives learn from the experience of others.
My team and I collected some of the most interesting crises of 2017 and analyzed them against traditional approaches to crisis management, and then specifically against the five key principles outlined in my forthcoming book, Brand Under Fire: A New Playbook for Crisis Management in the Digital Age:
Whittling the list of crises down was a difficult decision. Frankly, if more c-suite and communications professionals shifted their outdated and rote approach to crisis management, perhaps we wouldn’t have so many from which to choose.
WE FOCUSED ON:
- United Airlines
- The Las Vegas shootings
- Hurricane Harvey / Arkema chemical plant
- Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport’s Blackout
- Sexual misconduct
United Airlines Passenger Removal
Brand Under Fire Principles: Speed & Authenticity.
I travel often, have represented multiple airlines, and while I may often be eager to get off the plane, I thought not once have I ever thought, “I can’t wait to be violently extricated from an aircraft today!”
I bet David Dao, didn’t, either. When David Dao was aggressively removed from a United flight, causing serious personal injury and widespread disbelief, it was caught on video by various passengers and swiftly posted to social media.
The shocking nature of it created a viral cataclysm for United, but it became one of the most misunderstood crises of the year.
The bottom line is airport officials extracted David Dao from the airplane, not United employees. However, United CEO Oscar Munoz and team acted swiftly and authentically in defense of its staff.
Defending employees is a common and admirable instinct among business leaders, but it is a tricky narrative to nail. Though United first apologized with speed in defense of its team, it didn’t appear to act with agility in the days following.
Subsequently emerging events of Dao’s past derailed much of the crisis conversation away from United, which gave it time to spin its wheels a bit too much. It eventually overcompensated and then course corrected apologies more than once. However, the official apology to United customers from Munoz made strides in authenticity, albeit it a bit too late.
Takeaway: Your response in the first few hours determines your success.
The Las Vegas Shootings
Brand Under Fire Principles: Authenticity & Agility.
Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest music festival featuring Jason Aldean, when Stephen Paddock opened fire from the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds of others.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s focus on Route 91 Harvest music festival itself.
Because of the extreme and calculated nature of the atrocity, in many ways unpredictable by the festival, there is not criticism about whether or not they managed the devastation appropriately. If anything, we must look at their narrative in the aftermath.
The irrefutable compassion expressed by the festival promoters was the absolute best way to respond. It is also worth noting that the Route 91 Harvest team scrubbed its social media channels to feature ONLY this statement. It perfectly demonstrates the gravity of the moment.
Takeaway: There are some events that are so horrific, that all you can do is offer condolences.
Brand Under Fire Principle: Transparency. #UberFail
Pick a crisis, any crisis. Ride-sharing company Uber has been uber plagued in the last year with sexual harassment scandals, outcries of poor leadership, IP theft, bullying and unethical business practices against competitors, to name a few.
Uber’s entire culture was revealed to be toxic.
At best, it independently hired two external law firms to investigate the sexual misconduct complaints. At worst, it allowed CEO Kalanick to stay as long as he did, and then depart for “family reasons.” While not entirely false, perpetuating this time-worn excuse does little to inspire confidence in the truth.
Whether or not Uber can navigate the long road to reputational recovery remains to be seen.
Takeaway: When your reputation has been broken down piece by piece, you need to demonstrate a level of transparency and empathy with both internal and external communications to have a chance of rebuilding.
Brand Under Fire Principles: Speed & Agility. A disaster on all fronts.
Cybercrime is real. Protect yourself and your digital identity.
But what happens when the entity that’s supposed to protect you…gets hacked? 143 million people – or at least those paying attention – found out when Equifax suffered a data breach.
Let’s examine the response from Equifax. First there was the egregious delay in acknowledgement and a formal notification. Then there was the verification website that smelled of low-rent hackers and was blocked by many malware programs. Then Equifax tried to sell a TrustedID service for added identity protection – but only if the user opted out of a class action lawsuit against Equifax. Finally, the company’s narrative was stale and impersonal. Repeated attempts at contrition fell flat. Frankly, from the public’s standpoint, the narrative was already established and it was going to be extremely difficult or unlikely to shift.
And to add insult to injury, it was alleged that many top executives dumped Equifax stock between learning of the breach and publicly announcing it.
Takeaway: Public trust and confidence is hard to earn, and easy to lose.
Hurricane Harvey – Part 1
Brand Under Fire Principles: Authenticity, Speed, Transparency, Agility, Creativity. The big five!
While it would be easy to dissect the shortcomings of local, state and federal responses to Harvey, that book is still being written. There will be plenty to analyze.
Hurricane Harvey is more interesting from a crisis perspective when viewed through the lens of human triumph in the face of tragedy.
Nothing can offset criticism of governmental responses as well as the Cajun Navy, hundreds of locals and their neighbors from nearby states who brought their own boats to rescue the residents overwhelmed by floodwaters along the Gulf Coast. If that’s not authentic, speedy, creative and agile problem solving, we don’t know what is.
We also saw public utilities from many states away send their linemen and their trucks to help in the recovery. The companies didn’t flaunt it, instead, they let the branding on the trucks speak for them. The job of a lineman is one of the most dangerous in the world, and one of the most expensive to train and maintain. This service came at a great financial and human capital burden to the utilities, but a huge and authentic gift of goodwill to the region.
And those are only two of hundreds of groups, maybe thousands, who activated our concern for their neighbors.
Hurricane Harvey – Part 2: Arkema Chemical Plant
Brand Under Fire Principles: Agility & Creativity.
The Arkema chemical plant in north Houston, built on a floodplain, was overwhelmed by unprecedented flooding, leading its primary and backup systems to fail. Explosions were imminent once the chemicals became highly combustible at a certain temperature. When it was clear a boom was looming, Arkema evacuated the plant and a 1.5 mile residential and commercial radius.
Arkema continues to fight perceptions that it didn’t prepare for the worst-case scenario, and that it wasted time in evacuating. (The city and county responses are subject to an entirely separate evaluation.)
But generally speaking, as in so many cases, this is a complex story of technical aftermath.
Arkema’s agility and proactivity to openly communicate was applauded. They provided a constant stream of updates and official statements, a standard approach per the old-school crisis playbook – including a splash page website for more information.
But it lacked in creativity.
I will be the first to admit that one of the most difficult jobs in the world has to be the corporate spokesperson on camera during crisis. What the spokesman needed was modern visual aids to help tell a very complicated and technical story. All of these items could have been created and on standby for any type of crisis.
The digital age warrants a much different strategy to sharing information. Perhaps they’ll do it differently next time. Because there’s always a next time.
Takeaway: Planning for the worst-case scenario means considering the historically unprecedented. Think big. Prepare bigger.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Blackout
Brand Under Fire Principles: Chick-Fil-A and others showed Creativity, Speed, Agility, and Authenticity.
Recently, holiday travelers faced an unprecedented blackout at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, ranked the busiest airport in world by passenger traffic for the past 20 years.
Planes were grounded on tarmacs within arm’s reach of gates. Every airport service was cut off. All because of a massive failure in the redundant systems powering the entire property.
It is easy to imagine the staggering amount of money lost by cancelled and delayed flights. But no one can calculate the cost of the mental strains of being in the dark for hours. Literally and figuratively.
The airport has faced tremendous criticism in the days following for its lack of an information stream to the public, much less it’s communications on site to the thousands of travelers stranded in the terminals and on the grounded planes. As I watched with interest, I couldn’t identify a crisis response strategy at work.
I know from experience managing the Fukushima nuclear disaster that redundant systems fail. Regardless of the cause, it happens. Triple redundancy is never too much. I think the Atlanta airport leadership learned this the hard way.
But let’s not forget the goodwill displayed by many. Fellow travelers shared phones and laptops, food, and other necessities. Food service staff provided food to passengers throughout the terminal. Perhaps most uplifting, Chick-Fil-A – headquartered in Atlanta and famously closed on Sundays – opened nearby stores to deliver food to those stuck at the airport for an indefinite amount of time.
Takeaway: The Fight, Flight, or Freeze theory also applies to crisis management. If you freeze, you lose. You must always communicate through a crisis, even if there isn’t much news to report.
Brand Under Fire Principle: Authenticity & Speed.
Going back to the introduction, I’m invoking Harold Burson’s caution to never be too critical of a crisis if you aren’t in the war room.
Amtrak’s recent derailment of Train 188 in Pennsylvania left much to be desired in the crisis management department. They have been widely criticized for the lack of a timely acknowledgment or information flow in the moments and hours following the accident.
I have trained the heads of airlines and other related service providers in disaster preparedness. The one thing we mercilessly drill into them is that they must acknowledge the event immediately upon learning of it, and uphold promises of providing updates frequently and as they become available.
In this case, Amtrak’s silence was deafening. I imagine there were a number of communications and leadership executives who chomped at the bit to provide info quickly, but were likely shut down by legal counsel. This is not unusual.
But this strategy cost Amtrak the trust of the public – especially those with loved ones on the train. When there is a loss of life, information – and sincerity- is of utmost importance.
Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman eventually issued an official response. It was thoughtful and sincere, and speaks to the values of the company.
“With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities. On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event.
We recognize that for everyone onboard the train, including those who suffered injuries, the healing process may be long. Within 24 hours of the incident, Amtrak set up a Family Assistance Center in Philadelphia to work closely with the family of passengers and crew on the train. We are also working with the individuals and families affected by this event to help them with transportation, lodging, and of course, medical bills and funeral expenses.”
Takeaway: It is possible to heed legal counsel and still be mournful for loss of life. Authenticity always wins out by keeping the narrative on track.
Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace
Brand Under Fire Principle: Speed.
Unfortunately, this epidemic cannot be contained to a single workplace or crisis team. The last year has revealed more alleged offenders than we can count, all of which are surprising based on their public personas. There are so many, in fact, there could be an entire new sub-industry of communications teams devoted solely to managing and rehabbing the images of the accused.
If there’s any upside to these gross exploitations of a power deferential, it is that 2017 turned an eye toward corporate accountability and brought action – quickly.
Prior to the days of the nano-second news cycle, we wouldn’t have heard about the allegations, nor would we know if or how they were settled. They would no doubt be cloaked in confidentiality agreements.
But the nature of today’s news and social media emboldens those who have been victimized, hence the viral phenomenon of #MeToo. This movement gave voice to a deep-seated outrage at a behavior that has become our social cancer, in that it is deeply harmful, fast-moving, and knows no gender, no race, no religion, no creed.
I am confident this phenomenon is ushering in a new era of corporate responsibility.
Takeaway: Make no excuses. Ever.