PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Crisis communication is The Olympics of public relations.
© 2008; 2016 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations
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Participating in The Olympics -- regardless of the sport and whether it's a team game or an individual event --
is the ultimate challenge for athletes. It requires peak performance in full view of the entire world. Crisis communication presents similar challenges to public relations practitioners.

 

The Olympics are at the pinnacle of the sports world.

Regardless of the sport, the rules for playing a game are essentially the same whether it's played informally by a group of friends in a park, played professionally by high-paid athletes, or played internationally by the designated representatives of the world's nations competing in The Olympics.

The rules of the games don't change when they're played in The Olympics, although they may be more scrupulously enforced. The difference between The Olympics and other athletic competitions isn't the rules, it's ...

The aftermath is also different. After most athletic competitions both the winners and losers pack up, head for home, and immediately begin preparing for the next competition that may be as soon as the next day or the next week. But, when the Olympic Games are over, the paths of the medal-winners and the also-rans diverge dramatically.

Those who have been successful and won Olympic medals become media celebrities, at least in their own country if not world-wide. Many capitalize on their new-found fame and the financial opportunities it brings. Public tours, commercial endorsements, and job offers pour in, at least in the short-run, and some former Olympians maintain their celebrity for the rest of their lives.

The fortunates among the also-rans who finished out of the medals may be able to resume their training regimens and continue as athletic competitors. Some may even stage comebacks in future Olympics, but they have to wait at least four years and work really hard to do it. Many more also-rans simply disappear from sight and are never heard of again.
 

Public relations isn't a sport, but ...

Just as the rules of a sport don't change because of the level at which the game is played, neither do the rules of public relations. The basic rules and procedures for performing public relations are no different if your organization is doing business as usual in a totally routine and calm environment or is facing a major crisis.

But, the pace and intensity of the process will change.

Compared to everyday, routine public relations, when your organization is in a crisis situation in which it faces physical or financial collapse, or is responsible for, or has been accused of, causing significant harm, or is subjected to intense negative media coverage, you'll find that ...

Then, after its crisis has passed and conditions have more or less returned to normal, an organization and its public relations practitioners who have successfully handled the crisis can move on and enjoy long, prosperous futures while those that failed experience staggering losses. Among the latter, individual managers, public relations executives, and even lowly hourly-employees can end up out of work, and the organizations that formerly employed them can be millions of dollars in the hole or even completely out of business.
 

Consider two well-known examples: Tylenol and Exxon.

The first successfully managed two major crises that involved the intentional murder of consumers and was apparently staged to embarrass and damage the company. The second woefully fumbled in managing what initially appeared to be an unfortunate shipping accident with wide-reaching envronmental consequences.

Johnson and Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, won wide acclaim and became one of the most respected and highly-regarded corporations in the world, and its Tylenol brand became one of the most trusted brands in the health care field, because of its timely and consumer-oriented response to two similar, but separate, highly publicized crises in 1982 and 1986.

In both instances, evil-doers added poison to Tylenol capsules after they had been manufactured and distributed. In the first instance, six people in the Chicago area died of cyanide poisoning and, elsewhere, in what were considered copy-cat poinsonings, several other people became violently ill but did not die from strychnine in Tylenol capsules. During the second Tylenol crisis in 1986, one person in Yonkers, New York died.

In each case, Johnson and Johnson's words and actions clearly asserted "Consumer safety comes first." It didn't waste time or mince any words. It immediately notified the media, did everything it could to get the word out to the public, and completely opened its doors to police and media scrutiny. Stressing that the poisonings were the result of malicious tampering and not an accident, it offered a $100,000 reward for the identity of anyone involved in the tampering. And, it issued nation-wide recalls of Tylenol. After the first recall, the company developed and introduced new triple-seal, tamper-resistant packaging. After the second recall, it decided to stop selling Tylenol in capsules and to produce it only as a solid pill or "caplet."

Two weeks after the second crisis, while it was still fresh in everyone's minds, Jim Burke, the chairman of Johnson and Johnson, attended a White House reception where President Ronald Reagan honored him and the company by saying, "You have our deepest appreciation for living up to the highest ideals of corporate responsibility and grace under pressure." And, within six months, Tylenol had regained 95 percent of its previous market share and was consistently showing up in public opinion surveys as one of the most trusted consumer products in the world.

The exact opposite happened in 1989 when Exxon totally bungled its response to a massive oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The release of more than 260,000 barrels of crude oil, the worst oil spill in North American history, occurred when the tanker the Exxon Valdez ran aground near the entrance to the Valdez harbor. It was later proven in court that the captain of the tanker was drunk on duty at the time.

In stark contrast to Johnson and Johnson which immediately went public, invited the media in, fully and openly answered questions, and cooperated with the authorities in dealing with its crisis, Exxon arrogantly tried to ignore the situation. Initially, it wouldn't even acknowledge there had been an oil spill. Later it denied involvement, then back-pedaled and tried to shift responsibility for the clean-up to the state, and refused to answer questions from the media or from government agencies. Eventually, when the company was forced to speak about the situation, its top executives were nowhere in sight. Low-level spokesmen read prepared statements, declined to answer media questions, and generally seemed indifferent to the environmental damage that had been done. Even years later, after the courts had ruled against Exxon and all its legal appeals had run out, it still tried to dodge responsibility and present an "Oh, woe is us." face to the world, claiming it was the victim of over-zealous environmentalists and corporate-hating politicians.

In short, Exxon's behavior was appalling. According to Fraser Seitel's text, The Practice of Public Relations,: this incident "enshrined the name Exxon in the all-time Public Relations Hall of Shame" (p.67) and "will become a textbook example of what not to do when an unexpected crisis thrusts a company into the limelight." (p. 70) And, indeed, for many years after that, Exxon invariably showed up in public opinion polls as one of the most scorned and despised companies in the world.

In addition to the damage to its reputation, the Exxon Valdez oil spill cost Exxon untold millions of dollars. Angry consumers refused to buy its products. The most dramatic evidence of this was that thousands of once-loyal customers cut up and mailed their Exxon credit cards back to the company and subsequently boycotted its products. A merger with Mobil Oil saved it from financial ruin, but its reputation has never recovered.
 

The thrill of victory and ...

There's one more similarity between crisis communication and The Olympics. It's an almost embarrassing, "dirty little secret" that is widely known but rarely talked about among public relations practitioners who have successfully worked their way through a crisis.

Just like competing in The Olympics, doing crisis communication is a tremendous rush. -- Some would say it's an adrenaline high. -- It leaves you feeling exhilarated and on top of the world knowing that you and your organization have survived, perhaps even thrived, when the odds were against you and the eyes of the world were upon you. It's possible that your crisis was not literally a life-or-death situation. -- Or, perhaps, it actually was. -- Nevertheless, if you came through it successfully, minimized the public relations damage to your organization, and helped position your organization and yourself for future operations, that's quite an accomplishment! And, it really feels good.
 

Are you ready to play in "The Olympics" of public relations?

The questions you need to ask yourself before facing a crisis are:

If/when you do face a crisis, do it like an Olympian. -- Take a deep breath, try to relax, then push yourself to the max.
 


Performing public relations in a crisis Stay well-informed to be ready
when a crisis hits
Planning for a crisis
Six Steps to Preparing a Rudimentary
Crisis Communication Plan
(pdf)
Coping when a crisis hits Don't be a crisis hypochondriac

13 April 2016