Top Crisis Response Picks of 2018 & Why They Will Matter in 2019

2018

This year brought some interesting press to our social media feeds. As always, I am encouraging my friends and family to learn from the mistakes of the past. To make it a little easier, I’m giving you a guide to the top wins and blunders that I noticed this year all through the lens of Situational Crisis Communication Theory. Think of this as a quick insight into how I think in crisis mode.

Now, this theory is supposed to rationalize how organizations communicate with their publics in times of crisis. The primary author of the theory, Timothy Coombs, found that some trends worked and some didn’t and also grouped different tactics into different categories (also called clusters). You should read up on it sometime, but until then, here is my list.

Southwest Airlines

In the first airline casualty since 2009, Jennifer Riordan was sucked from a broken plane window on her Southwest flight. The bank executive was a victim of circumstance, as her window was broken by shrapnel that had broken off of the plane’s engine..

It was truly a tragedy, and Southwest was smart. The best part? They didn’t use any misleading pass-the-buck tactics.

In Situational Crisis Communication Theory, Southwest would have been grouped into the Accidental Cluster, as they had no intentional hand in the incident, but their technical failure caused a serious accident. Given that stakeholders can still claim that the organization was acting irresponsibly or unethically, especially if the response is poor, the threat to an organization’s reputation is still under moderate risk.

Immediately, the CEO dispersed a video extending sympathies to the family, taking full responsibility for the incident and making air travel safer by thoroughly inspecting the engine that had failed. This action, combined with the speed and transparency of the coverage, was seen as genuine and humanized the CEO and Southwest Airlines. That’s not surprising if you’re looking at the crisis through the lens of SCCT, though, as a Rebuild Crisis Response Strategy is accurate for this situation, because taking the punches looks a lot better than attempting to play victim while there is blood on your organization’s hands.

This also repositioned the narrative of the tragedy, interestingly without the use of any bolstering tactics. Instead of looking for a bad guy to blame, the public was now looking to Mrs. Rhiodan’s family and how they have been affected by the tragedy as well as honoring her memory.

Starbucks

This is another big one. In case you don’t remember, two black men had scheduled what they called a “life-changing meeting” at the coffee chain. An employee called the police on them. Seriously, it’s all right here.

In true big-corporation fashion, the CEO apologized. The coffee chain took the L, as they announced (less than a week later) that they were going to close all of its (8000!) stores to train its employees on anti-bias and discriminatory practices to prevent these types of misfortunes in the future. They even shared a bit of their training video online. In addition, the employee that called the police was fired.

Which cluster would this be?

While it would be easy to chalk this up as an accident and place oneself within the accidental cluster, Starbucks looks responsibility and placed itself firmly within the preventable cluster. They told stakeholders that they knew that, as a company, they were the ones who could set an example for others. They wanted to be the ones who took a stand against the racism happening in their stores.

This response worked, in part, due to its extreme nature. It showed a leap of good faith and dedication to doing real good for, not only the company, but also for humanity. Their approach encompassed the regret and apology tactics within SCCT (also compensation, but this was a minor press issue). They apologized, admitted they could do better, and moved on. This swiftness in the press took the narrative (mostly) from the wrongdoing and publicized (well) the overhaul happening in its court to right the wrongs of that particular Starbucks employee as well as society. That cut to their paychecks definitely showed strong commitment to their values, not to mention the undisclosed compensation they offered to the victims of the tragedy in their store.

This was not the first time Starbucks had closed down its stores, although it did cost more this time around due to the company’s growth. How much did it cost? Something to the tune of $12 million. Schultz knew how powerful the message was, as he wrote in his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul” about the last time they had closed their stores down. He said, "Ultimately, closing our stores was most powerful in its symbolism. It was a galvanizing event for Starbucks' partners — the term we use for our employees — a stake in the ground that helped reestablish some of the emotional attachment and trust we had squandered during our years of focusing on hypergrowth."

Why it Matters for 2019

These two companies used Corporate Social Responsibility to progress their organizations in a crisis situation. The positive response shows an increased need for a focus in PR on CSR and ethical business practices as tactics. The public will reward you for taking the high road now, especially since younger publics now care much more about the reputation of their brands and can easily access the Internet to check for wrongdoing. A common mistake companies have made in the past is to place themselves within the victim cluster and work to deny incidents, discredit naysayers, and negate responsibility, but this approach is usually attributed to companies who also refuse to amend their practices. It’s never a shock in PR when those companies fall under.

Some of these approaches may seem extreme to some practitioners, but think about it. This world is in a constant state of panic and worry, and many people blame large companies. It is no longer uncommon for people to volunteer their time or funds to causes they care about; some places even give their employees time off for this. This is why, in my practice, I try to focus on the situation as a whole to find the best solution for my client, their stakeholders, and the world. Doing so prevents deep sales decline, upholds faith in the organization, and promoted goodwill that carries into future PR debacles. This is especially important, because a history of PR issues will lead people to find future efforts disingenuous and ineffective.