Crisis Communications: Planning is the first step to success

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Headlines about organizations thrown into a communications crisis seems never-ending: products pulled because of serious health concerns, a prominent executive charged with sexual harassment, or employees making inappropriate posts on social media are just a few recent examples that illustrate the importance of crisis communication planning.

Boeing’s botched response

After two tragic crashes involving its 737 Max Jet and the deaths of 346 passengers, Congress recently grilled CEO Dennis Muilenburg about the company’s lack of transparency on the problems with the MCAS system, and most observers of the situation are calling for Muilenburg to step down. Boeing’s obfuscation of the problems with the MCAS early on and the company’s subsequent lack of responsibility after the first crash makes it extremely difficult for the public to regain trust in the company.

A lesson we can all learn from Boeing is to be as transparent as possible because the public needs to believe in you and that you have things handled. Without that trust, a brand will struggle to thrive.

It’s not just multi-billion dollar, publicly traded companies that need to be prepared for crises. On or off the job, administrators or employees might say something inappropriate or post a picture on Facebook that tarnishes the company’s reputation. It’s fair to say it’s the unexpected, seemingly innocuous statement that could deal a more devasting blow to your organization than industry trends or market fluctuations. The best thing your administrative staff at any organization can do is plan for the unexpected.

Some things to consider: you probably are very aware of the potential problems your industry is vulnerable to. But organizations that navigate PR crises successfully are able to do so because they were ready when the unexpected storm hit.

Southwest’s success

Let’s look at another airline-related PR crisis that could have been equally damaging but resulted in relatively positive exposure and coverage for Southwest Airlines.

In April of 2018, a Southwest plane’s engine exploded, tearing a hole in the cabin and killing one passenger. The plane made an emergency landing in Philadelphia and fortunately, the crew prevented any other lives from being lost. Some passengers on the plane recorded the aftermath on their phones, transmitting the terrifying event to social media and the public.

Southwest’s response to this tragedy was swift, comprehensive and clearly the result of extensive advance planning. Immediately after the event, their PR team further strategized their response and began implementing steps (while the plane was still in the air) including:

  • Southwest’s CEO, Gary Kelly, made a sincere and concise statement to the victim’s family and other passengers
  • All Southwest advertising was pulled from social media
  • All passengers received personal phone calls and emails offering support and counselling resources. Passengers staying in Philadelphia also received notes slipped under their hotel room doors that support was available 24/7
  • Passengers were sent $5,000 with no strings attached to help “ease the burden”
  • Southwest’s social media diligently followed public response to the incident and Southwest’s response.

While certain steps, such as the wording of Kelly’s statement, were constructed on the spot, the response obviously followed a well-conceived and comprehensive plan. The company’s response was heartfelt and transparent, the PR team stayed on top of the situation as it continued to unfold, and the result was the public kept its trust in the airline.

Expect the unexpected

Many of us are so in the weeds in our day-to-day work we don’t pause to consider the “what ifs” that could happen, and it’s certainly more comfortable to not think about potential crises that could impact your organization. But preserving your company’s reputation is as, if not more, important than meeting budgets and deadlines, and should be given the same time and consideration. If your role at your organization is in communications, not planning for a crisis could even be considered professional negligence.

At the Evolution Agency we think of crisis planning like saving for a rainy day. When things are going according to routine, you may not feel it’s necessary and you’d rather spend your money or energy on other things. But being prepared could mean the difference between surviving a crisis or having to deal with the negative repercussions for years to come.

We’re happy to help you with your “reputational piggy bank,” and can map out a unique strategy to help keep your organization in the clear. Find out more about what we can do to create a crisis communications plan for you here.