Strategic Communications Part 3: Crisis Comms=immediate, full disclosure

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By Owen Eagan & J. Gregory Payne

We discussed the importance of grassroots advocacy and public relations to land use campaigns in Parts 1 and 2 of this series.  In this segment, we’d like to focus on crisis communications as this is an essential component to any comprehensive communications strategy.

You have likely heard the sports mantra that defense wins ball games.  As much as we really like using sports metaphors in business contexts, this one completely misses the mark when it comes to crisis communications.  Instead, to paraphrase the noted military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, the more apt metaphor is the best defense is a good offense.

When a crisis arises, the first instinct of most individuals and organizations is to hunker down.  However, thisstrategy has proven to be disastrous again and again.  Regardless of the type of crisis, individuals and organizations must adopt a policy of immediate and full disclosure.  This will allow you to define your position before others do it for you.  Moreover, absent this approach, your lack of visibility will be taken as an admission of guilt.

The gold standard on full disclosure was set by Johnson & Johnson in 1982 during the Tylenol tampering crisis when seven people died from cyanide poisoning.  Throughout the crisis, Johnson & Johnson constantly communicated with the public to keep people informed on the status of their investigation.  The company also recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol at a cost of over $100 million.  As a result of their response, the company was able to protect its brand and regain its market share.

Nonetheless, we continuously see this standard flouted.  This is especially surprising since the costs of not handling a crisis effectively can be staggering.  As a case in point, consider the financial implications of the Tiger Woods marital infidelity scandal.  In addition to the millions he lost through sponsorships, one study estimated that the scandal cost shareholders up to $12 billion.  Had this crisis been handled differently, its impact could likely have been significantly mitigated.

Lastly, the speed at which crises can ignite has now been rapidly accelerated by social media.  There is no better example of this than the video that was launched against United Airlines which is now the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.  In spring 2008, Dave Carroll, a professional musician, witnessed baggage handlers throwing his $3,500 guitar on a stopover in Chicago.  His guitar was damaged and after arguing with United for over a year about his claim, he produced a video entitled “United Breaks Guitars” (see http://bit.ly/9vZ3uD).  The video was posted on July 6, 2009 and by the end of the month the video was viewed 4.6 million times.

But even though communication tools and dynamics may change over time, the rules of crisis communications remain the same.  Do your due diligence and vulnerability analyses to prevent crises from occurring, engage in immediate and full disclosure should a crisis arise, and describe the steps taken to ensure that the problem will not reoccur.

Click here for Part 4.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for The Saint Consulting Group, email Eagan@tscg.biz.  He has an MA in Political Communication from Emerson College and an MBA from Pepperdine University.

Dr. J. Gregory Payne is an Associate Professor at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year college dedicated exclusively to the study of communication and performing arts.  He has an MPA from John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and a PhD from the University of Illinois.

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