Exercise sound communication principles

In the midst of unexpected crisis, companies often become paralyzed by the ensuing volume of external media attention.  Without proper crisis planning, the ability of a company to maintain effective lines of internal and external communication can be jeopardized.  In this situation, the story of your company’s crisis will be told by observers on the outside, and your company’s viability will therefore become subject to damning hearsay and speculation. Proper communication planning allows a company to shape the message even under the direst of circumstances. By ensuring that information is collected and communicated accurately, a well-designed communication plan can help protect the reputation of your company.


The anatomy of a crisis

The first step toward managing crisis is to identify the severity of the issue. Does the issue even qualify as a crisis or is it merely a contained nuisance? To this end, it is important to consider that crises tend to rise from routine occurrences then escalate with distinctive rapidity.

Moreover, crisis is defined as a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger in which important decisions must be made. These criteria constitute the categorical range for identifying crises:

  • Presumably unavoidable (think storms)
  • Others are creeping situations (an issue exists yet nothing is done about it)
  • Enterprise as a villain/self-inflicted (your product harms others)
  • Enterprise as a victim (someone has tampered with your product and could harm others)
  • Crisis can haunt an enterprise for years (an incident causing significant environmental damage for example)

Crises can hit both large and small companies alike. Yet, when a name-brand organization is affected by crisis, the public scrutiny is proportionally greater. We therefore have a variety of examples for understanding the way crises have affected companies in the past. Reviewing the effectiveness (or lack thereof) with which these companies handled crisis reminds us that no organization is completely insulated from the appearance of crisis.


Johnson & Johnson’s Cyanide -laced Tylenol capsules (1982)—Enterprise as the victim

In the 1980’s, Johnson & Johnson faced a crisis that, upon review, becomes a telling example of the “Enterprise as the victim” category. In the opening chapter of his book on this crisis, Damage Control, Eric Dezenhall includes a quotation from Larry Foster, who had become Johnson & Johnson’s Chief Communications Officer around this particularly volatile point: “What began as J&J’s darkest hour turned out to be its brightest in terms of corporate reputation.”

In October of 1982, the Chicago Sun Times broke the story of five area deaths linked to cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol. Eventually, that number of fatalities reached seven on account of tampered Tylenol distributed within the Chicago area.

The company, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), responded by pulling 31 million bottles of Tylenol off the shelf –amounting to a value of $100 million– and halted all further production of the product. The company deliberately entered into a partnership with Chicago Police, FBI, and FDA forces in search of the killer. Upon combining resources, a $100,000 reward was offered. Meanwhile, authorities found no evidence of tampering at J&J plants where the Tylenol was produced.  Instead, the focus shifted to an external source of tampering, which gave way to the popular presumption that a “malicious psychopath” bought the product, laced it with cyanide, and put it back on the store shelves.

Throughout the ordeal, the Chief Communications Officer, Larry Foster, facilitated company interaction with both the media and J& J stakeholders. Drawing on the value of his prior experience as a reporter, Foster was able to present the facts of J&J’s crisis management with pronounced composure. As a result of his own disposition, Foster was able to strengthen an impression of J&J’s operational honesty.

Ten weeks after news of the crisis first broke in the news, the company reintroduced Tylenol with new tamper-resistant packaging and $2.50-coupons. Shortly thereafter, the company regained 100% of its pre-crisis market share. At the same time, the media lauded J&J’s public outreach and actionable concern for public welfare.

In this example, J&J’s reputational rebound was a product of the following communication keys: rapid response, transparency, honesty, and reassurance based on action.

In contrast to this example, Volkswagen’s more recent handling of an emissions scandal showcased the repercussions of less effective communication amidst crisis.


Volkswagen’s Emissions Scandal (2015)—Enterprise as the villain

In September 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused Volkswagen (VW) of manipulating its engine controls to falsify compliance with laboratory emissions tests. This move violated the Clean Air Act that made it illegal to sell vehicles falling short of environmentally-minded requirements for production. Adding to the impact of this offense was that it also violated the trust of customers—especially those who had, at least in part, based their purchases on environmental concerns.

As the story evolved, the company’s responses appeared less and less consistent to observers. In fact, it was noted that the responses often directly contradicted each other. For instance, in the immediate outbreak of the scandal, VW executives claimed to be unaware of the false emission readings only to state a few days later that they had knowledge of the violation. In addition, the company’s PR and social media teams could not keep up with the heightened attention. As VW set out to recall millions of vehicles, officials promised to reimburse some—but not all—customers for their troubles. Customers viewed that the company was dishonest in its only partial “owning” of culpability.

VW would have fared better if they had implemented a crisis communication plan commensurate to the magnitude of scandal. In this context, a more effective approach would have paid due consideration to such principles of communication as: handle the outbreak with  policy of honesty, show consistent empathy, demonstrate stance of apology, own up to the crisis with uniform (and not selective) reimbursements, and finally, commit to a change (e.g., by partnering with the EPA to combat air pollution or setting new emissions goals).


Be prepared and stick to the basic principles

  1. Be truthful
  2. Prove your comments with action
  3. Listen to the organization’s stakeholders
  4. Manage for tomorrow
  5. Conduct public relations as if the whole enterprise depends on it
  6. Realize an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people
  7. Remain calm, patient and good-humored


GRA Maven offerings

Shaping and maintaining your public image involves preparation.  Whether you are dealing with an emerging crisis or simply hoping to improve your organization’s relationship with the public, we can help.

GRA Maven’s team of experts can augment your current communications team and assist in the development of plans to influence opinion and behavior of your targeted public audience. Our public relations professionals can analyze your current communication plans according to your communication objectives and their desired effects. From this framework, we can discern a path for either refining existing communications or developing new ones. In either case, we analyze your company to uncover the kind of positive aspects of performance that can translate into positive and substantive stories.