Crises Can Make or Break Your Reputation

Despite the highly publicized and drawn out legal battles that ultimately led Johnson & Johnson to stop manufacturing baby powder in May 2020 due to concerns over cancer, the company's handling of Tylenol tampering in 1982 will long be lauded as a model for communicating in a crisis. After seven people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area, the company acted swiftly and decisively, and communicated clearly from the outset their priority in the public's safety—not only in words but actions. Approximately $100 million worth of product was voluntarily pulled from the shelves across the nation and production and advertising screeched to a halt. Post-crisis, Johnson & Johnson set another bar, this time in product quality. The company introduced a new tamper-resistant packaging that soon became the industry standard. They took a substantial hit in the marketplace but the business fully recovered and prospered. Johnson & Johnson was widely praised for its response, including by the media.

On the opposite end of national cases studies in crisis management lies BP. The company will likely be remembered for the five words that slipped from the mouth of a (now-former) CEO "I'd like my life back" and the myriad of crisis communication missteps that occurred following the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.

So, what if yours is not a Fortune 100 company like Johnson & Johnson or BP? Can you manage alright by just winging it? It is possible but not likely. Consider how the odds are stacked against you:

  • • You may have the wrong spokesperson. (Not everyone makes a good spokesperson, and even fewer do well under pressure without practice.)
  • • You will not know who to alert and how to alert them.
  • • You will waste precious time scrambling for resources and facts.
  • • You will lose your focus while chasing cascading problems.
  • • Others will have the luxury of shaping your narrative.

Add to this list the potential for technical errors, and the odds of an event careening out of control exponentially increase. The Freedom Industries accidental release in West Virginia offers a good example of how technical unpreparedness can exacerbate communication issues in a crisis. The facility managed a number of chemical storage tanks situated along the Elk River in Charleston. In January 2014, about a week after being acquired through a merger, the facility experienced a leak from a tank containing a coal-washing chemical. The leak contaminated the water supply of approximately 300,000 residents, and sent about 300 anxious people to the emergency room for conditions later determined to be similar to symptoms of colds, flu, and other common viruses.

In short, the technical failures resulted from long-term neglect that led to corrosion of the tank bottom, leaky containment and drainage systems, and a lack of proper maintenance and inspections. The communication failure began with a lack of complete and up-to-date inventory and chemical safety information. Facility representatives were unable to immediately confirm what material was stored in the tank. Not only was incorrect and incomplete information initially communicated verbally to the downstream water authority, it took the facility six days to determine the full composition of the leaked material.

In addition to the chemical characteristics, estimates on the volume of the spill continued to evolve in the ensuing days, causing confusion among responders and authorities, and eroding public trust. Internally, the company had no crisis communication plan in place. When the new owner of the facility arrived on the scene, he was obviously unprepared for the ferocious reporters who swarmed him. The company's reputation suffered so badly that even high-priced PR companies jumped ship shortly after boarding.

Not only did the Freedom Industries spill become memorialized in the annals of crisis communication failures, it also served as a wake-up call to industries and organizations associated with ill-prepared facilities. The company owners, president, and plant manager, as well as the facility environmental consultant, were found guilty of environmental crimes. While the company itself quickly folded into bankruptcy, class-action lawyers found deep pockets in both the chemical supplier and the downstream water company that initially distributed contaminated river water to customers. A $25 million class-action suit was settled with the supplier of the leaked product for failing to adequately warn its customer about storage incompatibilities due to the corrosive nature of the chemical. Another class-action suit for $76 million was settled with the water authority for not adequately preparing for such a leak near its intake.

How Well Are You Anchored for the Storm?

If you accept that it is only a matter of time before a crisis occurs, and if you accept that performing well could vastly improve your image while doing badly can crush your reputation, what will help set you apart from the herd? The answer, according to Fink (2013), is good will and a reputation for being a straight shooter that you have cultivated over the years. Fink writes about these buildups of trust as reservoirs of good will. The deeper the reservoir you build, the less chance your ship runs aground.

"It is the companies that lack a moral compass or that allow themselves to be tossed about on the stormy seas of a crisis, when a firm and sure hand on the tiller is needed, that suffer the most."

Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, Steven Fink, 2013

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey, 1989), this concept is discussed in terms of emotional bank accounts. While Covey discusses emotional bank accounts in terms of personal relationships, the concept works just as well in other relationships. You make deposits through being available, open, honest and considerate, and by keeping commitments. You drain your reserves by acting aloof, inconsiderate, and deceptive, and by paying lip service.

If you have invested in local relationships over time, you earn another benefit that is worth its weight in gold—you know the facts on the ground. This is especially important when considering the distortions in public feedback you may face through social media. As an example, in the aftermath of a gas well explosion at a Chevron well site in the small Pennsylvania community of Bobtown in February 2014, a controversy brewed about a gesture made by the company to local residents. The explosion tragically killed a young worker and the resulting fire took days to contain. As the site was not close to homes, residents were not in danger, but were impacted by ongoing traffic restrictions. Chevron recognized both the graveness of the initial loss and the ongoing traffic problem created for residents. Wanting some face time with residents to hear concerns and field questions, Chevron sent representatives door-to- door to answer questions and offer a coupon for dinner from a pizzeria—the only restaurant within 80 miles of the site (CBS Local, 2014). News of the pizza coupons flashed through social media networks at lightning speed. Sarcastic and scornful diatribes blanketed the Internet by angry tweeters and bloggers. News agencies picked up the story and Chevron was even skewered on the national cable show The Colbert Report.

Before long, a worldwide petition was circulated demanding that Chevron apologize to the citizens of Bobtown. By the time the petition's organizer was interviewed in March, the petition had 12,000 signatures (CBS News, 2014). At first blush, the social media blitz signaled a devastating failure in crisis management and communication. However, because Chevron had developed a relationship and ongoing dialogue with the local residents, the company knew that the local residents were understanding and appreciative of the gesture. In fact, not one resident of Bobtown signed the petition. The person who started the petition lived 250 miles away from the site on the other side of Pennsylvania. Those who signed included citizens from California, Alaska, Florida, the Netherlands, Australia, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Germany, and Italy (CBS News, 2014).


While a buildup of good will, trust, and reputation serve both people and companies well, particularly in the long run, crises communication expert Dezenhall (2014) points out that the trust bank theory has limitations in crises. In some cases, says Dezenhall, the squeakier-clean the organization's reputation, the harder a company may fall in a crisis. Points out Dezenhall, ".. .there is a deep impulse to step on the feet of the kid wearing shiny new shoes."

Do not Ignore Social Media

You may view communicating over social media as a boon for business, a necessary frenemy, a luxury you cannot afford, or something you want to avoid like the plague. Even if you fall within the last two categories, however, ignoring social media is not an option. At a minimum, someone in your organization should be monitoring social media to help keep fingers on the pulse. If you are a large organization, someone is likely assigned to do this as part of his or her job. If you are a small organization with no social media presence or resources, there are simple and affordable options for doing this. For instance, Google Alerts is a popular and free application that monitors the web for key names and words, and sends you emails with links to the hits.

Twitter can be an excellent tool for communicating in an emergency. Within seconds, you can reach multiple audiences, without the filter of the media, and in your own words. The social media app is not without its limitations and risks, however. As in all communication realms, social media practice is best guided by core principles and strategic planning.

Another bare minimum in the social media department is a social media policy. Even if you do not use social media as a company, your employees do. If you do not establish and communicate a policy to them regarding when and how they may (or may not) act in your name, you risk an unnecessary crisis. Even well-meaning employees can inadvertently cause embarrassment—whether approved or not to speak on your behalf. And embarrassing tweets are memorialized forever.

To tweet or not to tweet. Twitter can be a valuable tool for communicating in a crisis.

While Twitter and Facebook can be valuable tools in emergencies, users must be comfortable relinquishing some control in the conversation space. Social media platforms were created to engage and grow networks, and so companies like Twitter and Facebook are slow to infringe on this quality even as they address its inherent problems. Twitter in particular has drifted increasingly toward being a virtual Colosseum since the app was launched in 2016. As of the beginning of 2020, the platform had been tweaked a bit to help limit some of the on-screen bloodshed. For instance, features were added to allow users to hide replies on their feeds and to only allow replies from those who are following the tweeter.

Social media applications will continue to change quickly and often, so strategy and policies based on individual business principles are critical at the outset. It is likely that these types of guiding policies, led Johnson & Johnson to engage with online critics about concerns over potential asbestos fiber in talcum powder in 2018, and led Wayfair not to respond on Twitter to critics during a politically-motivated employee walkout in 2019. Both approaches are fine as long as they demonstrate consistency with corporate principles and policies.

Write, Test, and Revise

Few things are needed more, yet so consistently overlooked, than a crisis communication plan. Crises communication plans should be well thought out, simple to follow (some experts recommend one laminated page), and tested regularly. All plans rely on some form of vulnerability audit or risk assessment to identify what could go wrong. (The evaluation should explore disruption possibilities beyond accidents and natural disasters, such as employee sabotage.) Additionally, all plans require designation of a crisis communication team and spokesperson, as well as notification lists and preapproved statements. Table 3.3 provides examples of information that may be included in a crisis communication plan.


Example of Information to Include in Crisis Communication Plan

Emergency Communication Policy and Procedures

Crisis Communication Team


Communication Channels

Communication Monitoring

Scenario Action Plans (from risk assessment/vulnerability audit)

Attachments/Inserts/Stand Alones:

Emergency Communication Forms/Worksheets Call Tracking Forms/Contact Logs

Talking Point References—Immediate Responses to Media Master Contacts Lists

Avoid the temptation to make your crisis communication plan so thorough that it becomes unworkable. In some cases, it may make sense to focus on a few more likely scenarios and then maintain information for other scenarios as an appendix or other accessible document. As with other EHS plans, the one element of your crisis communication plan that will change often is your contact list. Make sure you update it at least once per year and share your updates with emergency planning authorities.

A crisis communication plan that accumulates dust is about as helpful as having no plan. Whether table-top drills or mock incidents, be sure to test your written plan once it is prepared and regularly from then on. It is the only way to work out the bugs and create a better fit for your organization. If your spokesperson has not been through media training, it is a good idea to video tape a mock news interview for practice. If your EHS department conducts regular emergency drills, piggybacking crisis communication exercises creates a more realistic practice session for both parties and saves the effort of coordinating two separate training events.

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