Categories: Crisis management

12 February 2010

One comment

Let’s not turn media dramas into real crises

Contrary to popular crisis management mythology, most dramas and disasters aren’t really crises at all. Chin up: things aren’t often really all that bad.

As somebody who once was accused of organising a race riot in Handsworth, Birmingham, I know something about definitions.

My first defence was to say that if it was organised, it was not a riot. The police perhaps kindly ignored that challenging thought and moved on to my second line, and accepted it: I was attending a conference in London when it happened.

But I digress. Here’s some examples of some crises.

When Edward VIII abdicated from the British throne in 1936 so that he could marry his American lover Wallis Simpson, it created a crisis. It did so because it threatened the nation’s sense of itself and might even have wobbled the UK’s constitution. The credit crunch was a crisis. It threatened to very severely disrupt capitalism by destroying huge amounts of wealth (especially savings) and confidence. Note: what actually happened was very nasty but has so far fallen well short of what was threatened. So it was a crisis and we seem to have got through it.

Those events threatened abrupt or decisive change. They created very real and deep fear. The worst outcomes were seriously in play, and did not materialise.

There are, of course, cases where dramas needlessly become full-blown crises.

For example, there are the cases where people imagine a danger which would be dreadful if it did occur. One was Three Mile Island in 1979. The ironic thing about Three Mile Island was that the worst case scenario core meltdown occurred within the first minutes of the accident. It was such a non-event that nobody noticed, not even the plant’s operators. Meanwhile, the world’s media stood outside the plant for weeks hyping up the “what ifs”. (BTW: Three Mile Island still generates electricity today, just as electricity was generated by Chernobyl’s nuclear reactors until very recently.)

Here’s another twist. Disasters are quite often not crises. That’s to say, a chaos is unleashed, but nothing very much is threatened. When Richard Branson interrupted his holiday to fly to the scene of a Cumbrian train crash in 2007, that was not crisis management, so much as good PR and (for all we know) a compassionate act of a good boss responding to a disaster. Of course, if Branson hadn’t turned up, and was thought callous, that might have produced a drama for Virgin, since one cannot afford nowadays to be invisible at such moments. Even so, it would not have been a crisis.

Interestingly, when it comes to accidents, firms rarely get punished as hard as did Windscale, Value Jet, and Union Carbide, all of which anyway survived their genuine crises. Yet it is at least possible that rebranding a disaster or crisis-hit organisation merely produces a legacy of bad-taste jokes and ill-feeling about slippery PR. That’s to say, there may be a deep understanding among the public that accidents do happen. That understanding can withstand, I maintain, the media approach (and victim reproach) which tend to assume that total safety is available and would have been achieved except for the villainy of firms and governments.

As people speculate about Toyota’s fate, the fact is that there’s never been a major car firm destroyed by a recall or by an accident. Companies destroyed by sudden events are normally in the class of totally corrupt Enron and its grey accomplice Arthur Andersen. In both companies trust collapsed because their skulduggery accurately defined what their brands were about. Their reputations were beyond repair, and quite rightly so.

Then there’s the likes of Ratners. The collapse of that company had more to do with a loss of nerve in response to a gaffe than, arguably, necessity dictated. But Ratners’ experience was another exception that stands out precisely for that reason. If you doubt that, just look at the positive share prices of oil companies today and then review their accident-prone histories.

But let’s stay contemporary here. Toyota’s worldwide recall is not a crisis in the true sense of the term. It is actually a drama focused on a narrow range of issues. The chances are slim that it will become a long-term disaster for Toyota. That’s not to say that slow sales, halted production lines and global recalls of millions of cars is business as usual. It is just to remind us to retain a sense of perspective.

For a start, who’s panicking? Who thinks their Toyota (their car, their share, their job) is really threatened here? Here’s the important thought: we see this storm and we think, “Toyota’s a damn good car-maker and will be an even better one after this”. Maybe a few victims (some half-embarrassed that they panicked instead of finding neutral), with their US lawyers rubbing their hands behind them. But I don’t think anyone seriously believes that Toyota’s existence is threatened by its current problems. Though I imagine that the pressure must be bloody uncomfortable for Toyota’s bosses, and not good for the nerves of Japan’s stock exchange in the midst of recession.

Before we lose our nerve, or tell Toyota to, we should remind ourselves how well Ford survived its tribulations with its “exploding” fuel tanks in the Pinto and Mercury Bobcats (1.5 vehicle recall). It was claimed they killed 27 people. Ford ordered the recall – and did not contest the accusations – because it was more motivated by supposed public perception than by what it knew to be true (The Suicidal Corporation: How Big Business Fails America, by Paul H Weaver, a Touch Stone Book).

So most things labeled as being a crises aren’t any such thing.

We PRs need to consider very carefully whether we should avoid the elephant trap which is laid for us here. We should perhaps develop a determination to avoid reacting to every drama and panic and even disaster as though it were a crisis for our clients. The media, after all, is in the business of making a crisis out of drama, and we all too often risk doing half their work for them.

Heather Yaxley writing on PR Conversations hit the notes well recently. She attacked PR crisis management theorists for their panicky hyper-active overreaction to dramas:

Tell it fast becomes tell it before you know anything.  Tell it all means let the media and its rent-a-quote experts speculate about worst case scenarios.  Be open means unlimited social media engagement (regardless of what the legal or other ramifications may be). Have the CEO (or celebrity if a personal faux pas has occurred) lead communications with mandatory appearances on chatshows, a tour of news stations,  and a YouTube apology.  Mea culpa – the universal panacea: “I’m sorry if…” – anyone resisting the calls is bullied until they comply.  The pound of flesh must be paid.

I fear she rightly roughs me up a little for my recent piece Where was Mr Toyoda yesterday? She certainly compellingly argues that every so-called crisis is different. She adds that too many PRs try to impose commoditized crisis management plans onto unique situations:

It’s a comfort blanket of how to…, what not to do…, common mistakes and miracle cures.

I would add that PRs often corrupt the everyday management of risk in business. The sensible cry from PRs for clients to stay ahead of the game risks turning the commonsense desire to spot problems before they occur into crisis management paranoia.

The result is the creation of a risk-adverse culture which inhibits innovation. That’s a point that is well argued in Paul H. Weaver’s The Suicidal Corporation. It is why I’m recommending people read it. The creation of a risk-adverse culture helps spread indecision and insecurity. During media hurricanes it becomes a sort of PR own goal. In other words, making decisions under under pressure calls for risk-taking, but risk-taking like winning and losing is habit forming.

The truth is that people admire and respect risk-takers and they make allowances for their failures. Moreover, unpopularity in the media is just as temporary and superficial as popularity. Bad headlines don’t destroy good reputations, no more than positive ones make them. Good reputations are based on innovation, delivery on promises and a certain arrogance based on success. They are sustained by people’s experience of the brand  (El Buli, Ryanair, Apple, Toyota and much more).

Hence, rather than becoming hyper-active advocates of risk-aversion, PRs should instead do more to inspire courage and balls into the mindset of their clients. PRs could do much more to push back on media and other agendas and to help their clients ride out the storms they face with their integrity intact.

The reassuring lesson from most Toyota-type troubles is that consumers are as quick to forgive as they are to condemn. So I’ll risk a prediction. There’s every chance, as Insigna’s Jonathan Hemus says here in The Guardian, that Toyota will come out of its storm with its reputation enhanced (though his advice is too skewed toward institutionalized risk aversion for my liking).

So a crisis is a crisis when it threatens the viability of something or other. Otherwise it doesn’t qualify. The job of PRs is to make sure situations never do qualify or to clear up the mess if the you know what hits the fan.

Oh, I never did advocate that people riot, dread the thought. But I do own up to having been a revolutionary, which is something completely different.

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One response to “Let’s not turn media dramas into real crises”

  1. Peter Walker says:

    Paul, you are right of course …is it life threatening should be and is the cold water splash question

    Incidents are the answer and they can come in all sorts of shapes sizes and categories – adverse, local, serious, even marital if you play football Whatever, but at least you can get to define the level of escalation necessary and the size of grey wet blanket necessary. But an incident isn’t sexy, it won’t run over three days and a Fern Britton interview.

    But I am fascinated in the power of attonement. It seems that mass murder could be OK, if you get out there and say sorry and even then there are degrees of attonement. Toyoda San bowed but was it low enough, too low or just right. Then comparisons were made between Royal Bank of Scotland crash and Toyota. Toyota by comparison with the bank bailout was insignificant they weren’t is the same billions ball park, but Toyoda San could say sorry, Fred couldn’t so Toyoda San’s rehabilitation has already started and Fred will now be followed to see if he can or does bow when and if he ever speaks in public.

    I assume John Terry, tanned and back from Dubai, will sit on a day time couch in two weeks time and have a manly but contrite weep at his weakness, and admit that he is seeking therapy for what is after all a diagnosable disorder, there is an heroic role of sufferers – Clinton, Tiger Woods, Sting. After the world cup I assume he becomes spokesman for Viagra or prostate cancer.

    If there is a problem for public relations and those of us who are practitioners it is that there is more excitement, more running round looking busy, seeming to save the world by responding to a crisis’ than dealing with an incident, there’s more value to be demonstrated in the negotiated TV confessional. We, well at least some of the PR world, need the buzz, the energy charge of a crisis and, let’s be honest incidents don’t command the fee premium that a crisis does so there is a vested interest in becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.

    I was in a minor riot once and public relations would not have helped….. in a revolution it does ask Lenin or Thatcher.