Envisaging a ‘worst case scenario’ is never pleasant, nor is imagining your business in the midst of a crisis, so many organisations would rather focus on the ‘feel good’ power of PR. Despite this, it’s important to be prepared for the worst.
Crises can hit any business, at any time – they can range from product faults or financial problems, through to staff misconduct or legal trouble. Yet while a crisis hits almost every day, there can be complacency, as people think ‘it won’t happen to us’. It’s a truism that you only truly appreciate a crisis communications strategy when you are in the midst of one (or, to be unkind, you only really believe it’s necessary after it’s too late).
With that in mind, we’ve examined two big crises that have hit this year, highlighting where a crisis plan works and how a lack of one can be highly damaging.
Malaysia Airlines and Missing Flight MH370
When flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March, and remained missing for days, then weeks, then months, mystery quickly turned into disaster.
The situation was exacerbated by an extremely misdirected communications campaign from the airline, which in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance handled the crisis in-house. The organisation seemed to reel from one mistake to the next; accusations quickly came from families and the world’s media of inaccurate information, with the airline issuing corrections almost immediately after statements – a surefire way to lose credibility. Search zones seemed to shift on an hourly basis, while the families of those missing – the key people the airline should have been talking to regularly – seemed to be no better informed.
This could be said to be an unprecedented situation – the first time such a major incident has played out, been reported on and been responded to in real time thanks to social media. In that sense, remaining in control was never going to be possible. However, Malaysia Airlines made a cardinal sin in crisis communications – which was to make the situation worse.
This poor crisis plan clearly damaged the reputation of Malaysia Airlines, with The Telegraph terming it “a masterclass in how not to deal with the aftermath of an incident”. The company is paying a financial price for this and, while of course its primary focus will be on locating the plane, it cannot ignore the fact that losses in its first quarter have been far deeper than would be expected, while passengers cancel flights and new bookings are extremely weak.
You may not operate an international airline, or ever conceive of the eyes of the world being on you in such a way, but the notion that an incorrect response can be incredibly damaging (to everyone involved) is one that should be universal.
Justin Bieber Tarnishes Clean Cut Image (see also: One Direction)
It’s a classic trajectory: young, successful artist with a huge, young fanbase gradually sheds their clean-cut image to appeal to a wider demographic. One Direction could be the torch bearers for such a move, with recent allegations of drug use by members, were it not for a certain Justin Bieber.
Bieber, who shot to fame on the back of a clean-cut image, has certainly ‘matured’ into a more edgy personality. He’s hit the headlines for all manner of things, including trouble with the police after his home in Los Angeles was searched when he allegedly threw eggs at a neighbour’s house, where cannabis and cocaine were found. He’s also been arrested for allegedly drag-racing his Lamborghini on a public street in Miami and being over the drink-drive limit.
Bieber has a very passionate fan base and these incidents seem not to diminish his appeal or popularity (and a cynic might say the negative PR could widen his appeal), but the latest scandal to hit may well prove a step too far. A video has emerged of Bieber telling a racist joke, which has prompted much uproar.
The response initially, according to reports, was to supress the video. When it emerged, the star moved quickly to apologise, distancing himself from what was termed a “reckless and immature mistake”. Clearly aware of the video for some time, this statement forms part of a clearly defined communications strategy that could have been in place for some time. This has been tempered by the emergence of a second video, which he scrambled to apologise for – making two mea culpas in as many days.
But how effective has it been? Well, response in the media has been largely accepting, with this editorial by TIME magazine highlighting the strength of the first apology. The second incident could well lessen the effectiveness of the response, while any further evidence of such behaviour would surely have a significant impact, and whether the apologies are enough to ward off any long-term damage, only time will tell. But by having a plan in place and putting it into action swiftly, Bieber’s team has gone some way to lessen the damage of what might have been career-ending mistakes.
For pointers on how to effectively manage a crisis, along with four other essential PR tips, download our free eBook: ‘5 Killer PR Tips’: