From Impressive to Appalling

There’s no shortage of crisis communications happening in the market today. From the most recent E. Coli scare at Chipotle to the Volkswagen emissions scandal to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream recall and, of course, the Daraprim debacle, we have plenty of examples of the “dos and don’ts” of crisis communications. Delivering bad news and minimizing backlash, requires communicating the right messages with the right spokesperson, for the right reasons. Looking at these recent examples, there are many lessons we can learn about delivering bad news.

The Burrito Blunder:

In the last few weeks, several cases of E. Coli have caused the closure of many Northwest locations of Chipotle. The chain has responded by very quickly closing the locations that may be effected and have launched an investigation into what may have caused the contamination. They issued a prompt press release last week, outlining the steps that they are taking to address the issue.

While this example is still playing out, the quick response and transparency of Chipotle are a good start to managing this crisis. What remains to be seen is whether or not the company will issue a direct apology to the public, and how they will change their processes moving forward to reduce the risk of future E. Coli outbreaks.

The Automotive Aberration

Volkswagen was recently found to have been cheating on U.S. emissions test. In the wake of this, they admitted responsibility and apologized. While their honesty and quick apology are examples of good crisis communications, there certainly was room for improvement. Set during a lavish launch event for their new Passat, President and CEO Michael Horn apologized and they quickly segued into a performance by Lenny Kravitz.

By failing to separate this into its own, more serious event, the company took away from the sincerity of the apology. The good elements of this apology were that it was fast, honest, direct, and didn’t offer excuses to the consumer. Where this could have improved would have been in the delivery. This should have had its own press event, without performers or extravagance, and should have set the tone to convey a serious, heartfelt apology to the American public. The Volkswagen apology was inadequate at best, and they have a long road to earning back the trust of the American consumer.

The Drug Debacle

This now infamous debacle started when the pharmaceutical company Turing made a radical and unpopular decision, increasing the price of a drug called Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 a pill (a raise of over 4,000%). The company’s CEO and spokesperson, Martin Shkreli, became the focus of public outrage. He went off the rails, was cavalier in interviews about the price increase and engaged in petty feuds with the media via social channels. Additionally, many very embarrassing stories were unearthed about him in the aftermath. There are several problems here: the first was the fact that the company opted for such an outrageous price increase that never stood a chance at being well-received; the second was their choice of spokesperson; and the third is that no one stopped Shkreli once he began his rogue spokesperson spiral.

Companies delivering unpopular news need to vigilantly research who they are putting forward as a spokesperson. A spokesperson must be relatable to the public, trustworthy and should be representative of company values. A spokesperson’s reputation often becomes intermingled with that of that of the company they are representing. Unfortunately for Turing, the public quickly decided that Shkreli was a rich, spoiled frat boy that was putting greed before sick people in need of medicine. The Daily Beast declared Shkreli the “most-hated man in America,” surpassing the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion. The lesson here is that companies must carefully vet spokespeople and have a critical eye to how they may be perceived, and if a spokesperson goes rogue, the board and/or other stakeholders must take control of the situation.

The Delicious Disaster

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream is an example of well-executed crisis communications, though there is always room for improvement. (I’ll admit researching this made me buy the cookbook. My coworkers will reap the benefits a future happy hour.) Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams had to stop production this summer after two outbreaks of listeria. The company immediately responded by getting ahead of the problem, testing each and every batch after the first outbreak, catching the second issue before any of the ice cream left the facility.

Jeni’s was honest, forthcoming and proactive about the issue. Jeni’s chief executive officer, John Lowe, delivered a clear and concise statement about how they were finding the root of the problem and preventing issues such as these from happening in the future. This approach inspires trust from the consumer as the company takes full responsibility for the problem, pulled the product from shelves and puts in place protocols (expensive ones at that) to ensure the problem does not occur again.

The transparency that Jeni’s offered during this time was key in helping to control the backlash from consumers, additionally, they set up a communications center to help give partners, customers and media the information they needed to feel satisfied with Jeni’s response to the listeria outbreak.

The place where the company could have improved, would be to have offered an official apology. While the company responded well and took steps to correct the problem, they never offered an official apology, and apologies are key to rebuilding trust with customers. Consumers need to feel that the company has taken responsibility for the problem. Apologies are an important step in the process that should not be skipped.

Key Crisis Communication Components:

Crisis communications is by no means simple, but there are some key takeaways that we can learn from these recent examples:

  • The right spokesperson is essential for communicating when something has gone awry. Companies need to thoroughly vet their candidates, and select one that has the best chance of connecting with customers in a relatable, genuine way. If the spokesperson goes rogue, they need to be removed from public view immediately.
  • Apologies are essential. Organizations must act quickly to investigate the problem, take responsibility, apologize for the error and put in place measures to ensure that the issue will not arise again.
  • Transparency, honesty and sincerity are key to minimizing backlash and winning back the trust of your consumers.

These key points can help navigate even the stickiest of situations. One of my favorite examples of a company that handled a crisis with great skill was Odwalla after their 1996 E. Coli outbreak. They hit all the key points needed to rebound quickly and win back customers. A year after the crisis, Odwalla was voted “Best Brand Name in the Bay Area” by San Francisco Magazine. Let’s hope your company never needs to utilize crisis communications, but if you do, be sure to keep in mind the lessons this year’s events have taught us, and of course, call us to help!