Not crisis prepared? What’s your excuse?

It’s one of the most perplexing questions in issue and crisis management. If executives are well aware of the devastating impact of a crisis, why don’t they assign resources to get properly crisis prepared?

Despite a continuing torrent of case studies and damaging headlines which spell out the impact of a crisis on reputation, brand, share value and the chances of corporate survival, new data just published reveals that there is little or no sign of improvement.

The latest PR News/Crisp survey of public relations professional shows that well over 25% said their organisation still did not have a crisis plan, or it hadn’t been updated for more than a year.

Moreover, more than 20% said their CEO was “not really” or “not at all” willing to invest in strong crisis preparation, and 30% said their company never or rarely conducts a risk assessment of potential reputation threats.

Given the lightning speed of social media it is particularly disheartening that 49% of the respondents also said that if a PR issue which threatened a brand crisis occurred out of office hours, they would not be alerted until the next morning or the next working day.

Have we learned nothing? As long ago as 2012 a massive global study by the Plank Institute asked public relations and communications professionals what were the most important issues they faced? Crisis preparedness ranked second in importance, just behind dealing with the speed and volume of information flow.

This decisive data came from what has been called “the largest, most comprehensive study of leadership in public relations and communication management ever conducted,” involving almost 4,500 respondents in 23 countries in nine different languages.

Since that study in 2012 the explosion of social media means the speed of information flow has increased every year, so it’s worrying that almost half of the PR professionals in the latest survey say they wouldn’t be advised about a potential crisis until the following day.

Obviously the PR people need to be asking some important questions about why. And about the need to put proper planning in place. But it’s pretty clear that real improvement can only be driven from the Executive Suite. As renowned crisis expert Ian Mitroff once wrote: “Without a champion, nothing significant will occur with regard to any major program in an organisation. This is especially true with regard to crisis management.”

However progress is likely to be slow. One global survey of board members found that fewer than half of the non-executive directors reported they had engaged with management to understand what was being done to support crisis preparedness. And only half the boards had undertaken specific discussion with management about driving crisis prevention.

The challenge is clear. The risk of failure is unquestionable. The only questions is, are you properly crisis prepared? And if not, why not?

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Should companies take a stand on political and social issues?

The question of whether corporations and CEOs should get involved in high-profile public issues is hardly new. But it vaulted into prominence last month when Brunei introduced new laws which would allow gay men and adulterers to be stoned to death.

The was a predictable global outcry, led by human rights groups and celebrities such as Elton John, George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres.

And while the celebrities called for a boycott on the nine hotels around the world owned by the mega-rich Sultan, the move by Brunei also posed an important challenge for governments and companies with links to the tiny Asian Sultanate.

One company stepping out in front was global travel agency STA Travel which stopped selling flights on Royal Brunei Airlines, and not only refunded tickets but also decided to absorb cancellation fees imposed by the airline. STA told me they believed Brunei’s actions were in contravention of human rights, and that the new laws posed a direct safety risk to their customers, as they also apply to passengers on Brunei-registered ships and aircraft.

Meantime the Queensland Government axed plans for a partnership with Royal Brunei Airlines; major companies such as Deutsche Bank banned their staff from staying in Brunei-owned properties; and a string of British organisations confirmed they will not be holding events at the Sultan’s Dorchester Hotel, including the TV Choice Awards.

In the face of international criticism, Sultan Bolkiah announced last week they will not enforce the death penalty for homosexual sex (though of course it remains punishable by imprisonment).

However, the case highlights once again whether companies and brands should take a stand on political and social issues. As British brand consultant Steven Strickland told PR News: “It shouldn’t take George Clooney to prompt people into action.”

There is a large and growing body of research which says the public want companies and brands to speak up about social issues. For instance, the Edelman Earned Brand Report for 2018 shows that 64% of consumers worldwide are “belief driven buyers,” up from 51% the previous year.

As a result, big brands are increasingly taking notice. Just in the last month we have seen Cadbury Australia launch it’s “Symbol for All” campaign against racism and intolerance, and Converse reap praise for its new transgender-themed sneakers as part of its Pride Collection.

Yet it has to be clearly understood that corporate activism is not without risk. A recent YouGov study in the United States showed that while more than half of millennials supported brands taking a stance on social issues, 59% of adults said they would boycott a brand if they disagreed with its public position on a particular issue.

Look no further than Australian brewer Coopers, whose CEO was forced to apologise in 2017 for a “light-hearted” YouTube video debate on same-sex marriage linking his beer to a religious group known for its opposition. Facing a threatened boycott, MD Tim Cooper asked for the video to be withdrawn and publicly stated his company’s support for marriage equality.

Most importantly, when your organisation takes a stand on a high-profile controversy it should be aligned with your values and operations, and hopefully with the values of your stakeholders. You need to do it for the right reasons, and you need to understand that a social issue at one level can easily risk creating a business issue for the organisation as a whole.






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One more for the Non-Apology Hall of Shame

In the heat of an election campaign, politicians are even more likely than normal to say something stupid or insulting. So it’s a good time for the political elite (and others) to remember how and when to apologise.

Sadly there is a dispiriting catalogue of occasions when society‘s elected leaders simply could not bring themselves to sincerely say sorry.

The latest entry into the Non-Apology Hall of Shame was last month when Senator Ian McDonald was called out at a select committee hearing for apparently mocking the name of Senator Penny Wong (who was not present at the time). Challenged by Senator Kimberly Kitching to apologise for confusing two Chinese names, McDonald replied: “You are very sensitive about it. If Senator Wong has taken offence then I apologise to her. But if she does take offence, she has a very thin skin.”

It was a classic non-apology apology. As usual, little more than an outworn formula of over-used words to avoid any sort of accountability and to “blame the victim.” And certainly not the first. Think back to 2012 when then Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, made some remarks which were taken as offensive to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. This is how he ‘apologised.’

“If she wants to take offence, then of course I am sorry about that. And if she would like me to say I am sorry, I’m sorry.”

As Abbott’s political opponents asked at the time: ‘Why bother?’ They contended that his words simply compounded the original offence.

Some defenders argued that it was “in the heat of political debate” but that’s a pretty hollow excuse. A similar ‘explanation’ was offered when Defence Minister David Johnston had to apologise after he famously told the Senate that he would not trust the government’s shipbuilder, Australian Submarine Corporation, to build a canoe.

He tried to defend his comment as being a “rhetorical flourish” during parliamentary debate, but lost his job just a few weeks later.

Whenever there’s an election, politicians (and aspiring politicians) are even more likely to produce gratuitous insults and embarrassing gaffes –“ in the heat of debate” or as “a rhetorical flourish” of course. And their opponents are even more likely to demand apologies – oftentimes purely for theatrics.

But whether it’s politicians or CEOs or celebrities, the principles remain the same. As Forbes Magazine wisely concluded a while ago: “Next time you’re clearly in the wrong, take a deep breath, put aside your self-justification, your excuses, your blame, your defensiveness, and simply apologize.”

And remember that “I’m sorry you were offended” is not the same as “I’m sorry my behaviour offended you.” Similarly, “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not the same as “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”

If only the same amount of effort put into avoiding the word sorry was instead put into sincere apologies and genuine remorse. Moreover, the process is not that hard.
• Don’t try to evade or divert personal responsibility.
• Don’t imagine that “it is regrettable” is the same as “I am really sorry.”
• Say you’re sorry.
• Then say what you will do to avoid the same behaviour again.

If you can’t do that – and mean it – perhaps you shouldn’t say anything. To be effective, any apology must be swift and sincere. Apologies which are only grudging or reluctant, or are really non-apologies, can be worse than no apology at all.



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Another self-inflicted crisis. The Streisand effect strikes again.

Why do supposedly smart lawyers sometimes let their clients do dumb stuff? Or alternatively, why do some celebrities create a self-inflicted reputational crisis where it didn’t need to exist?

Case in point is US Congressman Devin Nunes, who has just sued Twitter and two subscribers for $250 million over little-known parody accounts which were saying mean things about him.

One account – “Devin Nunes’ Cow” – had just over 1,000 followers before the dairy farmer Senator decided to take them to court. Within days the parody site had more than half a million followers – far more than the Senator’s own Twitter account – and they started selling Devin Cow T-shirts. Meantime news media around the world were reprinting the mean tweets with glee, with Time Magazine online publishing its story under the helpful headline “Read the Pointed Tweets That Led a Congressman to Sue Twitter.”

The lawsuit itself quoted some of the most egregious posts, which then entered the public domain. The suit even reproduced an obscene diagram from the second parody account – “Devin Nunes’ Mum’ – showing Nunes, Trump and Putin joined together like a human centipede.

As US late night host Seth Myers commented: “What is wrong with you? Before you filed the lawsuit no-one had seen that. We at Late Night would never have made a graphic like that, and we certainly would never have been allowed to show it on TV. But now that it’s part of an official lawsuit by a member of Congress we have to show it. Again, I hate that I had to do this, but legally I had to have it printed on a T-shirt.” At last count the Myers segment on YouTube had been viewed over two million times.

When it comes to self-inflicted reputational crises, the Congressman is just the latest victim of the Streisand effect, which occurs when you take action about something you don’t like, usually online, and it backfires by vastly increasing the audience. It’s named for Barba Streisand after a set of 12,000 photos was published to illustrate the impact of coastal erosion around Malibu. One of the photos showed her home and she sued the photographer for $50 million. As a result, the self-identified photo – which had previously been viewed only six times, including twice by her own lawyers – was viewed almost half a million times in a month and appeared in newspapers around the world. Moreover she lost the lawsuit.

Then consider actor Ben Affleck who took part in the US celebrity ancestry show “Finding your Roots” which revealed that one of his ancestors had owned slaves. Hardly remarkable, given America’s history, but Affleck demanded they remove the slavery revelation and thus created a story which trended on social media around the word, far beyond the niche PBS audience who would have seen the episode.

The Streisand effect, by definition, is when an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.

Yet while the consequence may be unintended, is it necessarily unpredictable? Can anyone possibly argue that Devin Nunes’ lawsuit against parody Twitter accounts was likely to have any result other than widespread mockery?

While the courts will presumably decide whether the Congressman’s action has legal merit, it’s already a reminder for issue and crisis managers everywhere about the danger of unleashing the lawyers over a perceived problem which just might have been better left alone.


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No Boeing. An “abundance of caution” is not good enough

In the wake of a major disaster, words matter. And for Boeing to say it grounded the troubled 737 Max8 aircraft in “an abundance of caution” was a particularly unhelpful choice of words.

Within just five months, two of the new aircraft crashed minutes after take-off – in Indonesia and Ethiopia – killing a total of 346 passengers and crew.

Four days after the second crash – when more than 40 countries around the world had already banned the aircraft and Boeing shares lost a reported $35 billion in value – US authorities finally decided to ground the Max8 and Max9 models. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company supported this step “out of an abundance of caution.”

But respected writer John Beveridge argues that decision was several days too late. “As for acting out of ‘abundant caution’ in grounding the planes,” he said, “the time for that was after the first crash, not the second, and certainly not after most other regulators had already acted.”

This silly phrase seemed to gain favour in 2009 when White House senior counsel Greg Craig explained that, following a technical mistake, newly-inaugurated President Obama would retake his oath of office in an abundance of caution. Unfortunately it has now taken root in issue and crisis management as yet another example of shallow corporate jargon.

Following any crisis, words really matter. Think of airline owner Tony Fernandez after Air Asia flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea.

“I am the leader of the company. I take responsibility. The passengers were on my aircraft and I have to take responsibility for that.”

Or think of Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson when two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia outlet while waiting for a friend.

“The way that incident escalated, and the outcome, was nothing but reprehensible — and I’m sorry. I believe that blame has been misplaced. In fact, I own it. This is a management issue, and I am accountable to ensure that we address the policy and the practice and the training that led to this outcome.”

Or consider former Twitter boss Dick Costolo after a particularly egregious high-profile troll attack generated adverse publicity.

“I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.”

No weasel words. No excuses. Just corporate and personal leadership.

The precise cause of the recent Boeing 737 Max8 crashes may not be finally confirmed for months, likely followed by years of damaging law suits. So maybe “abundance of caution” was a phrase chosen to keep the lawyers happy.

Yet for a major aircraft manufacturer – where potential design failures must surely be right at the top of the list of obvious crisis risks – there should be a very clear and well-rehearsed crisis communication plan. And the right choice of words should be part of that plan.

Last year a Centrelink office in Adelaide went into lock-down after someone reportedly dumped a white powder on the floor in a public area. Emergency workers donned full protective gear before identifying that the mystery substance was in fact sugar. In that case, evacuating the building just might have been a legitimate use of the term “abundance of caution.”

Belatedly deciding to ground an aircraft after two terrible crashes was not.

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Crisis Management lessons from the air-crash investigation model

When your organisation is recovering after a crisis or a damaging public issue, it’s very tempting to look for an excuse not to review what just happened, especially if management was at fault.

It’s a pretty human response, but unwillingness to learn from what went wrong is a serious mistake which blocks the opportunity to improve crisis preparedness and prevention.

The air-crash investigation model has some real lessons for issue and crisis managers, because the safety of today’s air travel is largely built on improvements resulting from an honest investigation of past failures.

So, next time you sit in an aircraft waiting for take-off, be aware that the modern standard of communication between pilots and air traffic control was massively overhauled following investigation into the Tenerife airport disaster in 1977, when two jumbo jets collided on the runway.

When you listen to that standard boring announcement about no smoking in the toilets, be reminded that smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers became mandatory after an investigation into the fatal crash of an Air Canada plane in 1983 revealed a fire started in the toilet and went undetected.

And as you lean back to enjoy the in-flight entertainment, think about Swissair Flight 111 which crashed into the sea after taking off from New York in 1998. A five-year investigation found a fire started in the in-flight entertainment system and ignited flammable insulation. That led to new fire-resistant materials in aircraft construction.

Obviously, a five-year investigation is not warranted for a typical corporate crisis. But the air-crash investigation model provides some powerful, yet simple, guidance for executives:

  •  Find out what really happened.
    •    Avoid setting out to assign blame.
    •    Bring in experts if needed.
    •    Learn from the event and make changes to avoid it happening again.

The emerging new integrated approach to crisis management recognises that preventing a crisis before it happens – and learning after it happens – are just as much part of the process as responding to the event itself.

The post-event review will very much depend on the nature of the organisation and the scale of what happened. It might be a small management team assessment; or a technical root-cause analysis; or a forensic accounting exercise; or a root and branch review. It might even involve cooperating with an external review, such as a coroner’s inquest or an official investigation.

Furthermore, in the same way that lessons from an air-crash investigation are shared with other airlines, aircraft manufacturers and regulators to improve maintenance and safety, you need to learn not only from your own crises but also from the crises of others.

When a major problem strikes another organisation it’s easy to conclude: ‘Thank goodness it wasn’t us’ and move on with business as usual. But it’s much more productive to ask: ‘Could it have been us?’ and ‘Would we have made the same mistakes?’ and ‘What can we learn from this?’

Research consistently shows that organisational denial – ‘It won’t happen to us’ – is one of the commonest barriers to learning.  To work towards the crisis-proof organisation, you need a formal post-event learning mechanism, with evaluation and modification as an integral part of the process, not just bolted on as an afterthought.

Adapted from an article in CEO Magazine

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Never underestimate how celebrities can influence important issues

Does it really matter when self-styled influencers enter into important public issues? Like the recent headlines when the 20-year-old wife of an Australian football player spoke out against vaccination and told her 7,000 followers that hospitals can’t be trusted.

The answer is yes, it does matter. Celebrities are welcome to hold nutty notions about the latest super food, about steaming intimate parts of their bodies, or the supposed benefits of drinking their own urine. Or even rapper B.o.B. insisting the earth is flat.

But when it comes to substantial issues of community health or public policy, celebrities have a real influence which can’t be ignored. For example, the role of celebrities in helping drive the anti-vaxx movement is well known and widely reported, as is the very real impact of their influence.

Late last year the WHO reported a 30% jump in cases of measles because of anti-vaxx messages. And the Australian Government has just announced a $12 million national TV advertising blitz to counter vaccination misinformation.

However celebrity influence has impact way beyond issues such as the anti-vaxx campaign. Think no further than the #MeToo movement which largely began with Hollywood celebrities and has now entered the mainstream social conscience around the world and led to proposed legislation.

Of course, the role of Hollywood is nothing new. One of the first modern superstar interventions in a serious public issue was the ground-breaking case in 1989 when actress Meryl Streep was recruited as part of an activist PR blitz against the chemical Alar, used in the production of apples. The campaign caused nationwide panic among American consumers and government regulators, who forced the product off the market and temporarily brought the apple industry to its knees.

The American Apple Producers’ PR advisor Frank Mankiewicz, said at the time: “We got rolled. When you’re dealing with a nutritionist named Meryl Streep, you haven’t got a chance.”

Or more recently when, New York Governor Mario Cuomo accepted the recommendation of his Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to ban ‘fracking’ to extract deep shale gas. Mr Zucker admitted there was a lack of hard data about the effects of fracking on public health, but he argued there were sufficient ‘red flags’ to warrant a ban. And these ‘red flags’ were largely raised by a high-profile six year New York campaign against fracking by hundreds of celebrities including Yoko Ono and Lady Gaga.

Celebrity issue interventions are not necessarily based on wrong-headed beliefs or what has come to be known as fake news. But the rise of social media has certainly made that possibility easier. In fact a recent study into the spread of information on Twitter showed that lies on social media spread much quicker than the truth. The researchers concluded: “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

But regardless whether or not their intervention is based on fact, the capacity of celebrities to influence issues should not be underestimated.

Perhaps experienced issue managers can learn from young PR professional Isabella Ziino writing recently about high-profile models endorsing the chaotic Fyre music festival in the Bahamas. “I hope one day we can all sit around the table with our cups of normal green tea and laugh at the time that we put our trust in strangers with pretty pictures on social media.”

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