The Anatomy of Crisis Communications

Over the last couple of weeks there have been several major PR crises in the news. We have looked at four of the mostly reported, to try to shed a light on how their crisis communication plans played out.

First, there was Pepsi, with an advert so culturally insensitive it made Jim Davidson look like a man of deep compassion. Then Sean Spicer, the human gift to satire that just keeps on giving, made a truly inept and offensive comparison between Hitler and Bashar al-Assad (during the Jewish festival of Passover, so full marks there). Third, United Airlines removed a paying customer from a plane, possibly roughed him up a lot, and then the CEO said publicly that it was the passenger’s fault. And fourth? Toshiba said they were going bankrupt…

No I know, most other people didn’t catch that last one, either. What with the sound and the fury of the first three, the news that one of the world’s oldest technology firms, employing over 200,000 people, might cease to exist, just disappeared into the ether. Which is, handily, exactly where Oscar Munoz (UA’s CEO) would probably like to be right now.

These four events were all crises. They all hit the headlines, as you can see above, but they all resulted in wildly different reactions from each company. When compared, they can teach us a lot about crisis management, and how to react to unexpected coverage. They’re great examples of what can go right – and what can go so very very wrong. We used Signal to do a bit of analysis to see how the media responded to these various crises and try to understand how their various PR efforts panned out, to help inform your own crisis plan.

Crisis Plan 1: Correct The Error and Shut Up

So, first to Pepsi, who probably have the record for the worst cost-to-campaign-length ratio of all time, after they pulled their latest ad, featuring Kendall Jenner, after just 24 hours in the field. The advert was clearly not intended to court controversy – everyone in the marketing department probably got caught up in the happy-clappy vibe that the ad projects and forgot to check their Pepsi-age.

The reaction was extreme – as Signal’s Media Monitoring shows above. From a weekly average of 150 or so pieces of coverage, volume spiked 2,000%, topping out at just under 4,000 pieces, then dropping to 3,250, and then, impressively, dropping right back down to nearly average levels. We say impressively, because it would have been easy for this issue to run and run, with think-pieces on cultural insensitivity and corporate culture continuing to raise the story for days, if not weeks, afterwards.

Why the speedy drop-off? Well, we shouldn’t discount the other crises – Sean Spicer and UA provided adequate new fodder for newspapers. But equally, Pepsi’s response to this crisis was clear and effective. They published a very short statement, apologising to everyone – including the star of the show, Jenner, and immediately retracted the advert. It’s gone. Pepsi didn’t labour the point, or fight back against critics, or delay a decision. This advert will be a bad memory and a stand-up’s punchline for a while, but no more. The crisis subsided, partially, because Pepsi stopped talking. There was no new information, so the press had nothing new to say.

Crisis Plan 2: Just Keep Talking, Never Mind What You’re Saying

Contrast this with United Airline’s approach. It may seem ironic now, but PR Week recently awarded Oscar Munoz ‘best CEO Communicator’ precisely because he was often willing to speak candidly and openly. Too much, perhaps. Their issue – apart from dragging someone off a plane, letting him run back on while covered in blood, and then carry him off the plane screaming while everyone had a mobile phone camera recording the event – has been that they can’t stop talking.

First there was the event. The CEO then issued a long statement that seemed deeply insensitive and heavily lawyered. Then he published an internal memo to all staff, that was, inevitably, leaked (did they not see that coming?). Then he apologised again – but now it seemed disingenuous. Continuing to speak has given the story endless oxygen in the press, as Signal’s media monitoring above shows. It’s given the press a reason to keep talking about it – the exact opposite of Pepsi.

Worse, the over-communication has led to promises being made that will generate more news in turn – internal investigations, regulator reports and even criminal charges that might not have interested the public if the story hadn’t been on the front page for days. It’s no wonder that UA’s stock price suffered so badly – this story isn’t over.

Crisis Plan 3: Drown Out Your Own Noise, With Added Noise

Oh Sean. What have you done? Except, of course, that it doesn’t really matter, because everything that comes out of his mouth is a crisis. Just like his suits.

What it means that – although he’s had to apologise again and again (even on White House Enemy No.1, CNN) – no one’s really listening. So Sean Spicer said something terrible? Again? Shrug. It’s the normal course of business for a Tump administration press secretary, but this time he did go a little off script. Our media monitoring of Spicer is so spiky that it could give Sonic a run for it’s money, but his references to Hitler, did give him slightly larger than usual spike, as can be seen below. However, this crisis seems to be just par for the course for Sean. It got coverage, sure. But no worse, and no better, than anything else he says.

Most businesses aren’t going to operate this way. But sometimes, if there’s so much noise coming out of your company, people begin to expect it. Uber is heading in this direction. Presidents and Heads of Comms resigning in (probable) private disgust, a horrible hustling culture and the CEO arguing with his drivers, or taking the company to strip clubs. When everything that happens is terrible – perhaps people will stop caring?

Crisis Plan 4 – Get It Out On Your Own Terms, Get It Out Early

Last, but by no means least, is Toshiba. It’s not been a good year for the company. Or a good decade. From failed merger to accounting scandal to near bankruptcy, it’s all par for the course now. Good news though is they’ve got really good at delivering and coping with bad news.

They got the information out on their own terms – no leak first – and were clear in the damage, the dangers, and what would happen next. They even published the figures without being asked, and before they had been fully audited because PwC were too uncertain. Most companies would hope no-one noticed, or wait until the last possible moment. Toshiba owned it.

There was a long article in the Guardian, and sure, the markets weren’t happy, but really – did you notice that Toshiba had gone bankrupt this week? The reaction was muted because they were open and transparent.

So what can we learn from these different approaches to crisis communications?

Every crisis is different. But these examples demonstrate the established crisis communications 101 is still very much valid. Here is a quick low down of some of the  lessons we can draw from how each organisation handled their issue, and how it impacted press reaction:

1. Speak as early as you can

The earlier you can get the information out there, the more control over it you are going to have. You might say that Toshiba knew in advance so they could plan. But Pepsi didn’t see it coming, and were pretty speedy in coming back with a response that shut the story down.

2. Speak succinctly, and as little as possible.

United Airlines’ statements were bloated and wobbly, with non-specific words that were open to interpretation – something the press is REALLY good at. Pepsi made a 3-sentence comment, and then shut up to let the storm blow itself out. It’s like being arrested – anything you say can and will be used against you, to keep the story going and drag it out for as long as possible.

3. Don’t promise any further action in the future. Just do it now, or don’t promise at all.

If you make promises, you’re going to have to fulfil them. And the press will be ready to comment on you again too. And if you don’t, they’ll write about that instead. Pepsi didn’t say they were going to take the advert down, they had already done it. If you’re going to have an investigation, think hard about whether you should say so, or whether you can afford not to.

4. Say sorry, say sorry fast

It’s the oldest one in the book, but saying sorry is important. And you should say it quickly. If you delay saying sorry, when everyone else already thinks you’re to blame, then when you do say sorry, you’ll be criticised for being inauthentic. Remember – 90% of reality is perception. If everyone thinks you’re wrong then, reputation-wise, you are. Sorry doesn’t necessarily mean the company is liable. Just that you feel bad about what happened.

5. Alienate everyone all the time so real crises like Syria and Trump’s connection with Russians don’t look so bad.

(For S. Spicer only).


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *