It’s hurricane season for us along the Gulf Coast, and with that comes a steady stream of news stories that feature a well-meaning government official or correspondent telling us to have an emergency plan in place and up-to-date.
When it comes to hurricanes, we usually have a window of time to prepare—gas up the car, get hurricane food (Pop-Tarts are my favorite), withdraw some cash, board up the windows, etc. But for a business, a crisis can happen in an instant in a myriad of forms such as the sudden failure of a vital system or, heaven forbid, an act by someone not fully in control of their senses.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen far too many instances where major brands have been ill-prepared for a crisis and have been overwhelmed by negative press and public perception: BP, Tiger Woods, Volkswagen, United Airlines and (some might say) the NFL.
“Most executives think [a crisis will] never happen to them or they think it can be handled in the eye of the storm,” said Gini Dietrich of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based public relations firm. “But the truth of the matter is, no one makes a great, non-emotional decision in the middle of a social media crisis.”
At the same time, a number of businesses have responded to emergencies in exemplary fashion and weathered the storm without much reputational damage, a list that includes Tylenol, JetBlue and Toyota. What follows are some lessons that can be gleaned from the way these and other companies handled unexpected emergencies. Hopefully, these observations can be incorporated into emergency plans since, after all, the best time to prepare for a crisis is when you don’t have one.
Be accountable: Whether the crisis was brought on by forces beyond your control or it was due to an employee, be prepared to be accountable. The number one reason a crisis spirals out of control is because someone stepped into the spotlight and shifted the blame. The non-apology statement issued by United Airlines on the heels of a passenger being dragged off one of its planes was a classic case of making a bad situation even worse. Then United’s CEO doubled-down by praising employees for going above and beyond their duties.
A better way to handle this issue was shown by JetBlue a few years earlier when an unexpected ice storm hit the East Coast, cancelling 1,000 flights over five days and leaving customers stranded for hours on planes taxied on runways. JetBlue CEO David Neelan, his voice cracking at times, used words like “humiliated” and “mortified” to describe himself and the airline. He never blamed the weather; instead he wrote the public a letter of apology, introducing a customer bill of rights and a detailed outline of how the company would make things right.
Respond quickly: Tylenol has long been the go-to case study for managing during a crisis. In 1982, when bottles of Tylenol Extra Strength were found to be laced with potassium cyanide, Johnson & Johnson acted swiftly, pulling 31 million bottles of Tylenol from the shelves, halting production and actually warning the public not to consume the product. Estimates put the immediate financial loss at approximately $100 million, but as we see today, they are still the go-to pain reliever.
Understand who your customers are… and who they could be: A company typically knows who its core customers are and they often tailor their marketing to appeal to them. However, in a crisis, your customer could be anyone. You must consider who you are pushing away with your response. When Tales of the Cocktail Founder Ann Tuennerman participated in an annual tradition of the Krewe of Zulu in New Orleans, she had no idea of the rough ride she would have for the next few days. During the Mardi Gras preparations, her co-founder made an off-handed remark that caused an uproar. She quickly acknowledged the remark and apologized for it. She also called for equal representation at the annual event, understanding that the organization has many unknown and future customers and fans in its circle of influence.
Prepare everyone: There was a time when experts came in and trained a handful of people to be “spokespersons,” the talking heads that gave the official response when something went wrong. Today, your social media team is often the “official spokesperson” and it’s more important than ever that these staff members have a pipeline to the correct information and that they be empowered to act and respond quickly.
When Southwest Airlines was hit with a widespread technology failure, it was forced to cancel thousands of flights. Over the course of several days, the company worked diligently to respond quickly to customer complaints by utilizing its social media channels. Although there were the expected news stories, Southwest reached out to its customers where they would be actively listening. Southwest realized the CEO was not the only spokesperson in today’s market. Social media has made communications in an instant a must. The days of waiting on news cycles are gone. Your response team has to have the ability to respond quickly and with accuracy and empathy.
Be human: Remember your company is run by humans and your customers are human. We all make mistakes. When a Red Cross social media employee mistakenly sent a personal tweet on the organization’s account, Red Cross responded quickly with a humorous tweet acknowledging the mistake and even encouraging followers to donate. They quickly realized this wasn’t the end of the world for the brand. A little embarrassment does us all a little good.
Continually prepare and improve your response: Years ago, I worked for a casino operator with properties located in the “hurricane cone of uncertainty.” We learned quickly that we needed a crisis plan in place for a number of worst case scenarios. Every hurricane season we would go over these plans, which gave us the opportunity to identify corporate and vendor partners and put certain things into a queue you hope to never use.
“We develop templates to say ‘we’re closed,’ ‘we’ll be opening’ and ‘we’re now open’ well in advance of any need,” said Anthony Mackenzie, director of digital marketing for Eldorado Resorts. “When a storm starts brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, our properties can start to get details in line and get communications set up so that when the time comes—and we hope it never does—they can attend to the safety of guests, employees and the properties while we take care of the digital communications.”
Mackenzie adds that adding remote location employees to your social media accounts and information flow can become a crucial piece in the communications puzzle. “When your employees are busy, other company counterparts can step in for you,” he said.
Have you put your crisis plan together? Are you ready to put it into play?