There’s no shortage of corporate drama. Our news feeds have been clogged with an endless parade of companies unraveling before our eyes. Just a few examples: Uber, Tesla, that notorious Pepsi ad, United Airlines, and a string of corporate security breaches.
The minute I see news about companies in trouble, I send good thoughts to the PR team. It’s their lot in life to tend to any issue that gets public attention—planned or unplanned. And let me assure you, those unplanned emergencies are tough. As a veteran of Google and Twitter’s communications teams, I’ve been privy to a variety of corporate flare-ups.
In both places I was the editorial lead, and worked closely with the PR folks to plot the timing and the message of company statements, follow ups, and employee updates. When a final statement (or apology, or explanation) was ready, I would apply the final polish to the copy—which had, of course, been vetted and revised by umpteen others—before hitting “publish” to the company blog.
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Given the near-incessant stream of corporate gaffes we’re seeing lately, it’s easy to assume that clueless PR teams are behind the ham-handed responses—or more aggravating, the radio silences. So consider this a peek behind the curtain of how crisis management operates against the clock and through news cycles.
First, do not assume that all crises are the same. The main flavors:
- Self-inflicted. Bad behavior, neglect, bad hires or fires, or bad customer experience. These often start with leaks, public accusations, or real-time reports that are difficult to ignore—we won’t soon forget that passenger video on United.
- Unanticipated data error. This may be financial, or a technical data blunder that has some consequence, but is not based on malfeasance. (i.e.: Google Street View data collection in 2010)
- Public misinformation. Incorrect information originating from outside the company— say from a misguided politician, unhappy users, or incurious reporters. (i.e.: This 2004 Gmail case)
- Outside forces. Some problems come from outside the company. (i.e.: Hacks and security breaches—Sony 2014 data breach, Yahoo’s 2014-17 woes—executive kidnappings—Adobe, 1992—or the effects of terrorism.)
Each of these has its own playbook, but they all share a process. Each situation is a race against the clock—the longer you do nothing, the more chances increase that you can’t regain control of the story, and will helplessly watch it cascade into more bad press and public hubbub.