5 (quietly effective) examples of crisis management

30 November 2015 -


Cases of crisis management tend to fit into two categories: the relatively manageable operations-led crisis and the far more complex values-led crisis. In both cases, your best response is not to get yourself embroiled in the first place but, if you do, here are some road-tested crisis management techniques

Guest blogger Jon Bennett

If you’re a major retailer whose clothing sales have slipped in almost every quarter over the last four years you’ll have enough to worry about. But when an error this October led to Marks & Spencer sharing customers’ private data with the world at large, the high-street brand was also saddled with a serious reputational crisis.

Personal data, including dates of birth, names, contacts and previous orders were widely shared – a mistake that could be fatal for lesser players in a retail field where trust and security are so important. A major threat to an organisation’s reputation can strike at any time.

The Marks & Spencer example fits in the first of two categories for reputational crises – operations-led crises and values-led crises. Would your organisation be prepared to communicate through an operations-led crisis of the sort highlighted above? And are you working to avoid a values-led crisis that could lead to boycotts or even threaten your future existence?

Operations-led crises

An operations crisis can strike anyone. People make mistakes and systems fail. And while the failure itself is important, the way in which you handle the mistake and communicate with people concerned can be even more significant. Three key principles can set you on the right track:

1. Respond quickly

First, be prepared to respond quickly. It takes moments for a lapse of judgement or process failure to go viral, trend, and make national headlines. In 2013, when disgruntled HMV employees took to their official feed to vent their anger, HMV’s reaction was to delete the posts.

But they were too late – the tweets were already screen-grabbed and shared. Having a team ready to handle issues that threaten your reputation, making sure they have decision-making frameworks to make the right call under pressure, and empowering them to take action swiftly, is vital.

2. Say sorry

Second, apologise. It sounds simple, and it can frighten lawyers keen to minimise liability, but a human expression of regret creates understanding and sometimes sympathy. M&S were quick to apologise after last month’s data leak.

But in 2006, when two children were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler on a Thomas Cook holiday, no apology was forthcoming.

The silence was deafening. When an apology was eventually made, by the new chief executive, it was widely seen as too little too late.

3. Put things right

Third, you need to put things right. This is the time to call on a little of your hard won brand equity. Demonstrate the mistake is a blip on an otherwise strong record and show how things will change so mistakes aren’t repeated. Putting things right in a creative way can even enhance your standing. Sony PlayStation Network offered its customers a welcome-back program that included upgrades and purchase credits after hackers infiltrated their system.

Values-led crises

While an operational crisis can rock your brand, but perhaps even enhance it, a values-led crisis is a far more difficult challenge and one you should invest time and money to avoid. These crises often result from brands failing to see how values and opinions are shifting among the public at large.

Think of H&M and other clothing retailers, who found themselves under the spotlight when popular opposition to sweatshop staff reached a critical mass. Or even Gordon Ramsay, who became the target of a campaign to take foie gras off his menus once the practices of producing it were exposed.

If you’re left trying to tackle this sort of fallout it may already be too late.

You’ve already acted too slowly by not changing your prevailing business practices. An apology becomes more difficult as the whole ethos of your brand is being challenged, which in turn prevents you falling back on your brand equity. More extreme measures are needed – such as the former Lance Armstrong Foundation, which rebranded as the Livestrong Foundation.

The golden rule for handling a values-led crisis is to never find yourself exposed to one. Stay abreast of public opinion, see where cultural norms are heading and make sure you’re keeping pace.

Better, get ahead of the pack, as Lush has done with its first-mover advantage on the Living Wage and as the RNLI has done with its commitment to ensure people opt into fundraising literature rather than having to opt out. Contrast these examples with clothing brand Monsoon, which was found to be paying below the minimum wage by including clothing discounts to sales staff in their benefits.

The bad news about reputational crises is they can strike at any time. The good news is you can prepare, and emerge with your reputation intact. More important is the link between corporate behaviour and prevailing public attitudes.

Keep scanning the horizon, keep your finger on the pulse of public opinion, and don’t be dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of public acceptability.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications

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