Your Next Crisis May Have Already Happened

November 7, 2017

by Dan Ward

Professional communicators realize the importance of a crisis communications plan, guiding companies and clients on how to maintain the timely and accurate flow of information in a crisis situation.

We plan for the things that might occur in the future that could affect our clients’ business … weather-related events, workplace accidents, etc.  But the allegations that have made for breaking news since the first Harvey Weinstein story was published point out the need for companies to plan for emerging crises that may have been smoldering for years.

Perhaps the best thing to have happened as a result of the Weinstein scandal (aside from putting a stop to his alleged predatory actions) is the creation of an environment in which many women (and some men) feel for the first time that they are safe to call attention to their own stories of harassment.  And though media stories have focused primarily on the entertainment realm because of the celebrity status of both the accused and the accusers, we should expect more allegations to be made public in the corporate world.

Those in charge of corporate communications for their companies and clients should be doing two things immediately:  1) connecting with HR to ensure that corporate policies for preventing and reporting harassment are up-to-date and that proper training is taking place; and, 2) updating crisis communications plans to account for potential harassment claims.

This can be a difficult discussion to have with the CEO, but it’s a critical discussion to lead.  As with any crisis, our job is to prepare for the worst even if we believe the chances are slim that the plan will ever be put into action.  Preparing a response to a potential harassment claim is not an admittance of guilt or a suggestion of impropriety.  It is simply proper planning.

I listed the conversation with HR first, because a company’s actions in a crisis are much more important than its message.  The lack of a harassment policy can itself lead to a crisis of reputation for your company, so it’s critical that you ensure a policy is indeed in place.  Is the policy clear in defining harassment and prescribing penalties?  Does your company provide training for both supervisors and employees?  Is the process for filing complaints clear, and are complaints taken seriously?

Don’t let your discomfort with an issue that has long been taboo keep you from making the right decisions for your company and clients.

Zika, the Oil Spill and Help for Communicators

August 19, 2016

by Kim Stangle

One of the most important client success stories we’ve told in the last decade has been about our work for South Walton (the Tourist Development Council) on the heels of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  With tourism as its main economic driver, the destination faced a crisis of epic proportions when news of the spill hit and visitors feared the pristine white-sand beaches they loved would be covered in tar balls.


Our team worked alongside the TDC’s communication staff to develop a crisis communication plan that would ensure visitors would continue booking trips as they’d done for so many years before.  The plan included scenario-based messaging; a blog that was updated daily to show real-time images of beach conditions; and, a variety of other communication tools.

Ultimately, the drop in bookings was a fraction of what initial research indicated was possible and they rebounded dramatically in the years to follow.

It’s hard not to immediately draw comparisons to the latest news coming out of South Florida—Miami Beach, specifically—where the latest Zika outbreaks are crippling an otherwise bustling tourism spot.

While an oil spill is hardly the same as a mosquito-transmitted virus, the communication challenges are similar.  Perception is a powerful motivator of fear and communicators must work to provide a constant flow of accurate information if they seek to separate fact from fiction.

For help with crisis communications and other public relations issues, check out our case studies and white papers.

Fahrvergnügen, Meet Iacocca

September 22, 2015

by Dan Ward

Volkswagen is rightfully facing criticism (and a plummeting stock price) after admitting to rigging potentially millions of cars to surpass pollution limits.

The company has admitted that software was installed that switches engines to cleaner mode during testing, but turns that software off again once testing is over. That results in more “driving enjoyment” – the English translation of the famous Fahrvergnügen tagline – but also a lot more pollution.

But the positive sign – at least for those of us who communicate for a living – is how Volkswagen is dealing with the news. Instead of defensive lawyer-speak, U.S. President and CEO Michael Horn used these words:  “Our company was dishonest … we have totally screwed up … We have to make things right.”

And this from the company’s chief executive, Martin Winterkorn: “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers … To make it very clear: Manipulation at VW must never happen again.”

The VW response reminds me of a story we often share during our Message Matrix® training sessions regarding Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler when that company was found to be removing miles from odometers, selling slightly used cars as brand new.

His comments at the time were surprising, because they were so straightforward.  He said the practice “went beyond dumb and reached all the way to stupid,” adding “I’m damned sorry it happened, and you can bet that it won’t ever happen again.” That straight talk resonated with customers and with media, and is credited with saving his company.

Whether such straight talk will save VW remains to be seen. The company must back its words with action. But they’ve certainly taken the right initial steps to eventually regain their customers’ trust.

Don’t Sweep Your Crisis Under the Rug

August 14, 2015

by Heather Keroes

One of my favorite makeup brands is Lime Crime.  Their products are cruelty free and highly pigmented in a rainbow of unique colors.  I’m also a sucker for unicorns on packaging.  But when a friend told me Lime Crime received a warning from the FDA, I immediately stopped using all of their products.  This was no Internet rumor set for debunking on Snopes.  She sent me a link to an FDA letter warning Lime Crime about unsafe ingredients in one of their most popular lipsticks.

Lime Crime claims that the ingredients in question were incorrectly printed on their boxes.  But in any case, until the issue is resolved with the FDA, how can their loyal customers feel comfortable?

Lime Crime has taken a reactive approach to the crisis.  A very active brand on social media, Lime Crime continued to post promos for their makeup for several weeks, as if nothing had happened.  But when you have a vocal fan community of 1.6 million followers on Instagram, nearly 700k on Facebook, and more elsewhere, your strategy can’t be to hide and hope it all blows over.

I’ll give Lime Crime credit.  Earlier this week, they started responding to some of the concerned customer comments on social.  Here’s just a small peek at one of those conversations.


Lime Crime


The brand’s response hasn’t been enough to quell concerns.  And now, Lime Crime has gone silent on social.  The company prepared a statement on the safety issue, but it can only be accessed through a direct link, which was only shared in reply to several comments on social.

I doubt Lime Crime had a crisis communications plan in place before the FDA incident.  Product safety is an issue that should definitely be on the list for any company in their industry.  Unfortunately, they haven’t addressed the issue in a way that makes consumers think they are taking it seriously instead of, as the brand said, sweeping it under the rug.  In the meantime, my lipsticks will be swept under the rug too.

What Shadows are You Hiding from?

February 4, 2014

kmartin by Kerry Martin

This past weekend’s Super Bowl stole all the major headlines, but the smaller news story was that Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter.  While the famous groundhog’s weather forecasts might not always be perfect, he does share a lesson for those who think they can hide from their shadows.

In any business, you’re going to run into problems, threats or full-on crises, and the most important thing to do is address them with a planned communications strategy.  Unfortunately, you’ll also run across senior managers and CEOs who take an approach that effectively hides from the problem—whether they’re denying there’s anything wrong, waiting until the situation blows over or passing to the attorneys to handle.

You need to be out in front of your issues, communicating where appropriate, taking action when it’s needed and always assuming responsibility for your mistakes.  There are plenty of other posts on this blog that offer suggestions for handling crises, and all of them advocate proactive, sincere communication.

So take it from Punxsutawney Phil … if you hide from your shadow, prepare for a long, hard winter.

Would You Go There? – Dangerous Destinations

October 13, 2011

by Heather Keroes

Our partner Kim Taylor’s recent blog post about Japan’s big effort to bring back travelers got me thinking about how tourism agencies and councils deal when labeled as a seriously dangerous or suffering destination.  Some of the purported dangers are real and valid, while others are perceived.  There are people who consider Mexico to be dangerous for travelers, but that hasn’t stopped the country’s tourism agency from beckoning travelers to lay out along the sands of the Riviera Maya.  Tourism numbers have gone down, but Mexico’s tourism officials acknowledge the challenge by trying to spread the message that the drug war’s violence isn’t directed at foreigners in tourist districts.

News headlines this week spoke of potential sanctions against Iran, a country that the U.S. Department of State warns against visiting.  Iran also made news recently for its long detention of several American hikers.  Most Americans may not consider Iran a vacation destination, but the country boasts beautiful mountains, deserts and ancient, historical sites.  Iran plans to have 20 million tourists annually by 2015 (the country attracted only 2.3 million tourists in 2009) and has a tourism agency, but its website doesn’t address the internationally reported issues.  I can’t help but wonder how it will meet its 2015 tourism goals.

Mexico and Kenya are also on the U.S. warning list – and they differ from Iran in that both attract their fair share of travelers.  Will these warnings stop you from exploring Aztec Temples and partying in Cancun, or taking a safari through an African reserve to spy upon rich wildlife?

What should a country do to make you feel safe?  Such situations can’t be solved by a tourism board alone, but these travel-focused agencies should play a big role in spreading “the message” – whether it is to correct inaccuracies or share how problems are being addressed.  At the end of the day, these destinations need to fall back on the PR function of crisis communications, including these three basic steps:

  1. Listen – This is such a simple but important tactic.  You can’t address a problem without fully understanding what is being said.  When a crisis strikes, immediately start monitoring related news stories and online conversations.
  2. Engage – If you don’t speak up, then you don’t have a voice and your point-of-view is lost.  The media and consumers will speculate and their words will spread even more rapidly through social media.
  3. Position – There is no one more qualified than a tourism agency to speak about its own destination , as they are natural news sources that carry credibility.  In addition to sharing your message with media, further position yourselves as the experts and make your voice stand out from the online chatter.  Blogs and social media channels are easy, inexpensive and quick ways to share information and support candid communication … and if you have an official website, be sure to keep it updated.  You can’t hide from a crisis by pretending it doesn’t exist.


Your Plan WILL Change

March 24, 2011

by Dan Ward

It’s often difficult for people to understand why public relations plans need to be fluid, and why communicators can’t define six months out exactly what they will do and say.

Plans must constantly evolve because our ability to deliver a message is constantly affected by external stimuli, the “noise” in most communication models that impacts whether and how a message is received.

No plan can be so detailed as to anticipate everything that “might” happen. We’re working with one client right now to assess and update their crisis communications plan, knowing that it’s impossible to anticipate every potential crisis. (For example, our 2010 plan for Beaches of South Walton didn’t anticipate a massive oil spill.) So instead we plan for the process … who is in charge, who to contact and when, where to establish communication centers, how to identify audiences, etc.

I’m working with another client on a major public issue, and the primary spokesperson was just called for jury duty … on a case that could last at least three weeks. I can guarantee that “next steps when client has been sequestered” was not part of my original plan. Luckily for us, he was rejected in voir dire, but you can bet we were already updating our plans to adapt to his potential absence.

The only constant communicators can plan for is change. It’s up to us to make sure our companies and clients understand that the plans we develop will almost always differ from the plans we implement.

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