Crisis Management: Don’t Close the Door on Your Organization’s Fire

One of my friends when I was growing up in the countryside of Indiana was a boy named Billy, who lived a few houses down the street. Billy was a nice kid but not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to common sense.

We were both around ten years old when “the incident” occurred: While playing with matches in his bedroom, Billy set the window curtains on fire. He tried putting the fire out, but the flames quickly spread. Billy was so overwhelmed by the situation that he walked out of his room, closed the door and started watching TV in the living room. Really, that’s exactly what he did.

For a few minutes, he didn’t have to deal with the awful reality of what he had done, and he was able to go about life as usual. 

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However, it wasn’t long before the entire house was engulfed in flames. Fortunately he and his family escaped, but the house burned to the ground. I still remember hearing the sirens and watching flames shoot out of their house as firemen tried in vain to save it.

Now I understand why my mother encouraged me to make some new friends.

Billy never talked much about “the incident,” so I can’t say for sure what was going through his mind. But I suspect when the fire started in his bedroom, he was afraid he’d get in trouble for playing with matches and thought he could handle it. After all, it was just a little flame at the end of a match—at least, at first. That was MISTAKE #1.

When he realized he couldn’t put the fire out, Billy apparently became so overwhelmed with what he’d done that he convinced himself he could just close the door on the fire and it would magically go away. That was MISTAKE #2.

When I tell this story in my crisis communications seminar, people are amazed at such irresponsible behavior, and rightfully so. Billy should have known better—a raging fire doesn’t extinguish itself by shutting the door on it.

Yet, many organizations with intelligent, well-educated leaders often take the same approach to dealing with a crisis in their organization.

Rather than face reality, they try to ignore the crisis or put a lid on it.

More often than not, the crisis grows and becomes consuming, and in the process devours time and resources. Sometimes the organization’s reputation is severely harmed, and out of the ashes investigations suddenly appear.

It’s not unusual for negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside, which often occur during a crisis, to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control of the situation and concern about what might happen next.

Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the fire it has set. If the organization is caught off guard, it may be forced to divert valuable resources to fight the fire.

More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus among senior management, which only makes the situation worse.

Facing reality and engaging the crisis in its early stages will make the situation more manageable and less damaging.

When a crisis strikes, those charged with managing communications should have three primary objectives:

  1. Maintain control of the message
  2. Minimize damage
  3. Achieve accurate and balanced coverage through the news media and Internet

One of the best ways to help maintain control and minimize damage when a crisis strikes is to have a flexible crisis management plan in place.

The plan should:

  • Contemplate the types of crises that could occur
  • Set forth policies to deal with them
  • Identify all audiences and the best ways to communicate with them
  • Have a pre-selected crisis management team in place
  • Establish a system for communicating accurate information quickly and effectively

The only thing worse than not having a crisis plan is having one that is not communicated, reviewed or tested by those who ultimately will have to implement it.

photo credit: nrg_crisis Aglow via photopin (license)

Trust Is the Core Issue in Instagram PR Controversy

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This week’s Instagram flap once again shows how quickly a crisis can escalate when a company is perceived to have crossed a social mores line.

After reports circulated around news sites and the Internet that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) essentially considered your photos its photos—and therefore could use or even sell them without your permission—scores of indignant users reportedly dropped the service.

Here’s what got people so riled in the new privacy policy update:

“[y]ou agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

That wording seemed to indicate that Instagram had the right to sell photos to third parties at will, and then pocket the money.

The reaction was swift and angry. Instagram quickly went into crisis mode and issued a clarification. Turns out it was all a big misunderstanding due to poor communication and Instagram does not plan to sell your photos after all. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said the company is working on revised language to make it more clear what will happen with users’ photos.

According to a Chicago Tribune story, Mr. Systrom also stated, “language that indicated your photos could be used in advertisements will be removed from the terms completely.”

Instagram was smart to jump on this quickly, issue a clarification and also say it is listening to feedback, will fix mistakes and clear up the confusion. So, gold star for taking this seriously and saying the right things in a timely manner.

But I have to wonder about a couple of things that still bother me.

First, how could language like “you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos…” get out in the first place? There should have been red flags everywhere. Wasn’t there at least one person in authority at Instagram who saw that wording and thought, “Gee, I wonder if this might create a bit of controversy?”

Maybe there was someone who raised the issue, but senior management chose to ignore it. We may never know.

Which leads me to my second point: Instagram surely must know that most people don’t take the time to read all the details of policy updates. And that make me wonder if what was really happening here was that management was trying to slip this through and got caught.

Whether or not the wording was intentional, trust has been broken with many thousands of Instagramers, and it will take more than a policy clarification to restore it.

The best way to avoid problems like this is to identify and handle them before they ever get out of the barn.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to advertising agencies and businesses.

photo credit: phauly via photopin cc

Has Agency Crisis PR Lost Its Way?

Crisis PR is in crisis. Or so says Matthew DeBord, writing in The Big Money.

He believes the 24/7 news-and-comment cycle and social media have permanently altered the landscape to the point where “the new crisis paradigm is spinning hopelessly in the dark.”

Leading with BP’s troubles and the inability of its crisis communications team to work magic, Mr. DeBord writes “the dark art is in meltdown.”

While Mr. DeBord’s article raises some interested points, his statement “The BP oil spill, Apple’s (AAPL) Antennagate, the fall of Goldman Sachs (GS), Toyota’s Great Recall, the sexual travails of Tiger Woods, the trysts of Al Gore, the loose lips of Stanley McChrystal—all these combustions would have been fixed, in the good old days of 2007, with a call to Burston-Marstellar or Sitrick & Co.,” is frankly absurd.

Exxon hardly waltzed through the Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which took place before the Internet was used on a large scale. Or how about Bridgestone’s tire disaster a decade ago? Bridgestone had a top PR firm working on the crisis, but would anybody say it was handled well?

While there’s no doubt that social media have changed the speed at which companies communicate and the way in which they interact with the public, the fundamentals of crisis communications haven’t changed.

I can’t recall ever seeing a crisis “fixed” just by throwing money at PR. There has to be a good-faith effort to fix the problem that caused the crisis in the first place.

If a company is deceptive and tries to hide the truth, no amount of crisis spin is likely to do it much good.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.