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Today, news travels fast. And negative news, particularly negative news that features a corporation who serves the public, is among the fastest to spread and become the water-cooler topic of the day.

Recent headlines offer lessons on the importance of brand reputation, conflict resolution, the influence of modern media in all its forms, and your need to quickly and correctly respond to any negative news involving your corporate or personal brand.

Here are four lessons for crisis communication that you can apply in your own corporate or personal communications.

Work on your reputation all the time, not just when you need to defend it. Think about consumer brands who enjoy almost universal goodwill. Why do we have high regard for Southwest Airlines, Disney, and Chick-fil-A, for instance? The answer lies in their overall corporate cultures of friendliness, excellent customer-centered service, and involvement in their communities. When things go wrong and there is bad press for these companies, they have consumer cheerleaders already in their corners, assuming the best and anticipating (and getting) an appropriate response from the corporation.

Avoiding early solutions often makes for bigger problems. Like that extra five pounds that suddenly balloons to 20, problems expand, if not handled early on.

An effective handling in the early stages of a recent airline situation would likely have lessened the severity of the damage that eventually ensued. There was a problem: An already full plane—with passengers seated and ready for takeoff—and then word that airline personnel needed to be accommodated on the flight. No volunteers, even with (moderate) perks offered. We all know what eventually happened.

What might have happened early on to avoid all of the trouble? Perhaps the flight attendants could have been empowered to offer additional reimbursement to get “volunteers.” Perhaps the captain could have come out of the cockpit to say “Folks, we understand you all have reasons you’re on this flight and would prefer to take this flight rather than one tomorrow morning. But if we don’t move the crew members who we’ve been required to get on this flight, the travel impact tomorrow will be severe for dozens of others. That’s our problem, not yours. But I really need some help. We can’t move this plane until we resolve this, so who will come forward to talk to me about what you would need in compensation to be able to help us out?”

Initial responses speak volumes and are often remembered most. With this same airline situation, the earliest attempt by the corporation to diffuse the catastrophe was far from sympathetic to the plight of the passenger. The initial release to the public was very weak: “This is an upsetting event….I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” Then in a memo that went only to employees of the airline, fingers were pointed back on the passenger and the flight crew was applauded—this memo was quickly leaked to the general public. The court of public opinion would have none of it. An already bad situation for the airline was quickly made much worse, because the public identified with the passenger in this situation, and the corporate response was viewed as “blaming the victim.”

Apologies are most effective when swift and reassuring. 
Here, the classic case is the Tylenol poisoning crisis in 1982. A still unknown criminal actor replaced Tylenol, product already on the shelves in stores in the Chicago area, with potassium cyanide. Seven people died. Once the link to Tylenol was known, the makers of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, issued immediate apologies to the public—though they were not at fault. They also set forth a swift course of action—pulling Tylenol off the shelves and devising tamper-proof packaging.

Back to our airline situation, there was eventually an appropriate apology and promise of an internal investigation into what happened and changes in policy “to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.” There’s no doubt that the CEO’s intentions and words were sincere and heartfelt, but they were no match for the fallout of all the negative events that preceded them.

Here are some previous Booher blogs that go into more detail about corporate integrity and effective communication by leaders, especially in times of misunderstanding and crisis:

Effective Leadership Skills – 5 Reasons Strong Leaders Admit When They’re Wrong

8 Keys to Crisis Communication

Effective Leadership – Creating a Culture of Excellence Through Integrity

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