In today’s online world, the 24/7 instant news cycle and the swift response potential of a skeptical and increasing militant blogosphere, require that your crisis plan should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis so that it can be implemented on a moment’s notice. That’s why I thought it would be helpful to review three key PR mistakes that made headlines in 2010 and gave us these important lessons:
- Make sure you have a spokesperson for the company that will be seen as honest, transparent and sympathetic by the public both on and off camera.
- Don’t try to minimize the problem or ignore public perception, because perception is reality to the perceiver.
- Be ready to move quickly and decisively to repair public trust in your brand, and find a way to give the public “permission to believe” you have resolved the issue at hand.
Tony Hayward wanted his life back . . . but what about the millions of Gulf Coast residents’ lives and livelihood his company’s negligence disrupted?
BP’s image suffered a major setback with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, yet BP responded fairly quickly with ads showing their efforts to clean up the mess and “do the right thing”. One early commercial featured then-CEO Tony Hayward with a pledge that taxpayers would not be footing the bill for clean-up. Despite public skepticism kept fresh by daily media updates on the massive spill and memories of the Exxon Valdez travesty, public opinion remained somewhat positive toward the BP brand.
When Mr. Hayward traveled to Louisiana to survey the damage first hand, his prepared statement began with an apology. “The first thing to say is I’m sorry,” he told reporters. Unfortunately, his unscripted comments in response to reporter’s questions destroyed whatever goodwill remained for BP. When asked what he would like to tell locals whose livelihoods had been affected, his response that “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
His answer angered locals and became a lead-in for news stories around the world. It wasn’t the first time that the British executive had caused anger with his comments. He had previously described the spill as “tiny” compared to the size of the ocean. He also asserted that the environmental impact of America’s biggest oil spill, and of the 950,000 gallons of toxic dispersant that have been used to treat it, would be “very, very modest.”
While the CEO is a natural, and normally good, choice as a primary spokesman during a major crisis, if he can’t be consistent as a reassurance to the public, he may not be the right fit. The key lessons learned in the BP story are to find a public face that can be empathetic and sympathetic to public concerns and who will be consistent and stay on script.
Steve Jobs tried to minimize the problem with the iPhone 4, and forgot an important CRM rule – the customer may not always be right, but ignoring their concerns is never a good idea.
Apple has had an unbelievable string of successes with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. But that streak ended when Consumer Reports said it would not recommend buying the iPhone 4 because its tests showed a hardware defect that caused the phone to lose reception when held a certain way.
Steve Jobs is thought to be one of the most savvy executives in U.S. business, but his refusal to accept that evaluation and his initial response that the problem was in the software and could be easily fixed was not his finest hour.
In a press briefing, Steve stated that “the iPhone 4 is using a very advanced new antenna system – a more advanced antenna than ever has shipped on a smartphone before." And, later in that same briefing, he said "looking at the data, we don't think we have a problem."
When negative comments continued to make news, Apple’s primary defense sought to transfer the problem to all phones. Official statements from Apple began by saying that “every phone's reception sucks when you hold it. Gripping any mobile phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone."
Eventually, Apple admitted the flaw and offered a free case to iPhone 4 users that alleviated the problem But this PR gaffe may have opened the door for Android phones to impact future sales. It certainly damaged the previously unassailable reputation and magic of the Apple brand.
The lesson here is obvious – always listen to your customers and if they are telling you something is a problem, don’t ignore their concerns.
Toyota initially drug their feet when faced with a quality issue, but when they finally responded, they focused on how they were changing their processes and introduced a new customer assurance program.
Toyota shook up the automotive world with a quality message that Detroit either ignored or could not match, and for 30+ years they enjoyed the benefits of that brand position. But in 2010, the car maker had to pay a $16.4 million fine for its failure to quickly disclose potential safety defects, and more recently was hit with $32.4 million in civil penalties for failing to properly disclose what it knew about safety defects. PR consultants say that Toyota was slow to respond and didn’t clearly explain the cause of the problem.
Experts now say that although Toyota has lost some market share, they are repairing their image with the help of ads that talk about their Star Safety Systems and showing that they are changing some processes that assign more engineers to monitor quality problems and extending time devoted to testing new models. Toyota execs now say that they are seeing the number of competitor trade-ins “returning to historic levels” and that customer loyalty shows “encouraging signs”.
The lesson here is to be prepared to respond on a moment’s notice, and don’t just say that you are fixing a problem, show your customers how you are doing it.
The overall lesson is that an unexpected corporate crisis is not a reason to panic . . . if you are prepared.
- Don Morgan, Raindance Consulting