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.
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.
As someone who often dreads the increasingly nightmarish process of boarding an airplane, I viewed the media coverage of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight a few months ago with morbid fascination.
The story is seemingly impossible to escape from, and I am certain that readers of this article were bombarded with coverage of the event across a variety of media platforms. The coverage has emboldened other passengers to share their stories of mistreatment, ranging from lost luggage to the death of a prized rabbit. There is even a protest song, as a musical condemnation of the airline from 2008 “United Breaks Guitars” has resurfaced, further embarrassing the company in an already turbulent period.
Despite the hysteria, I was ready to move on to the next major news story until I encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal, one which proclaimed that the “Airline’s rules-based culture” was to blame, and that this event was “years in the making”. During my time in the nuclear industry, I was often confronted with a similar problem: an organizational culture that had gradually limited the ability of employees to make decisions outside of procedures. While the contexts are different, the challenges are the same, and can be distilled into a fundamental question: How do organizations that discourage independent decision-making cope with disruptive events? Often, the answer to that question is some variation of “not very well”, but it would be useful to provide some context.
What is a Rules-Based Culture?
A rules-based culture is one in which an organization attempts to govern and control decision making by implementing, and discouraging deviation from, an extensive framework of policies and procedures. It is one aspect of High-Reliability Organizations (HROs), described by theorists as those organizations engaged in operations where the consequences of failure would be so high that it is considered wholly unacceptable. Unsurprisingly, some of the most commonly used examples of HROs include organizations involved in air transportation and nuclear energy, both of which utilize rules-based cultures to help prevent catastrophic failures such as aviation accidents or nuclear accidents.
When dealing with complex mechanical systems such as airplanes and nuclear reactors, it is understandable that an organization would seek to develop a culture that discourages operators from making unsanctioned decisions. However, this mindset rarely limits itself to the inside of a cockpit or control room, and can easily trickle down to aspects of the organization where flexible decision making should be encouraged. As a result, theorists suggest that rules-based cultures can allow organizations to successfully operate high-risk technology under stable conditions, but can also significantly limit the ability of organizations to cope with emergencies and disruptions.
As a result, many of these organizations have re-evaluated their longstanding assumptions regarding incident management, and have attempted to dramatically expand their resilience programs over the past decade. Ironically, many of the organizations that would most benefit from a resilient emergency management program are the ones that face the greatest hurdles implementing one. This has led to some significant growing pains for those attempting to integrate methodologies allowing for flexibility and improvisation into cultures that are heavily focused on rigid procedural adherence.
Finding a way to reconcile these conflicting approaches into a functional emergency management program can be a difficult process, but I would suggest that it starts with managing the expectations of both parties. An organization with a rules-based culture may want a comprehensive emergency management capability, but not fully appreciate the time and resource requirements needed to make this happen. Conversely, an emergency management practitioner may need to make compromises regarding the effectiveness of their program based on available resources, or even the organization’s tolerance for change.
Once a compromise has been made, I would agree with the best practice of achieving the buy-in of stakeholders at all levels, especially given that an increasing number of relevant theorists have stated that any comprehensive system that supplements established methodologies will not succeed without the approval of users. However, gaining that approval within a rules-based culture requires a level of planning and management that should not be underestimated. The typical approach of explaining the intended changes to management is certainly an important part of the process, but is only the first step. It is important to understand that substantially changing the way that an organization copes with emergencies in a short period of time can be a disruption in and of itself, and change must be carefully planned to ensure success. Development of a comprehensive project management plan consisting of timelines and resource requirements associated with users at all levels can allow stakeholders to fully appreciate the scale of the work expected from them, ideally minimizing changes to established timelines.
Furthermore, it is important to recognize that gradual change is better than no change at all, and adopting an approach of continuous development can allow rules-based cultures to improve incrementally without overwhelming stakeholders. This can also mitigate the tendency within our field to insist that organizations adapt to our way of thinking, rather than realizing that we may need to alter our doctrine to the realities on the ground. As an example, many organizations with rules-based cultures would benefit from some of the principles of the Incident Command System, but the system in its original incarnation is unlikely to function effectively within their structures. An Emergency Operations Centre would benefit from a leader with extensive emergency management experience, but telling the CEO of a company that they need to pass over authority to someone in a significantly junior position may not be met with enthusiasm.
Ultimately, the frustrations faced by emergency management professionals within these organizations relate to our desire to lead, protect, and make positive change within our environments. It’s rare to meet active professionals in this field who do not take their responsibilities extremely seriously, and the conviction in which we carry out our work can be difficult to accommodate. However, we must be cognizant and respectful of the fact that many organizations are only beginning to familiarise themselves with our profession and pushing too hard to make changes within a rules-based culture can do more harm than good. By approaching these situations with caution, humility and an effective plan for long-term improvement, we can continue to make positive cultural change without compromising the features of an organization that can effectively prevent catastrophic failures.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Douglas Grant is a disaster management consultant with nearly a decade of experience developing resilience programs for government, private industry, and critical infrastructure. He is a graduate of Royal Roads University’s Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management program, and a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers. firstname.lastname@example.org
Ubiquitous cell phone cameras mean every embarrassing mistake you or an employee makes is made in public.
In a time where you can pretty much bank on cell phone cameras capturing every moment, it is more important than ever for brands to make smart decisions when it comes to delivering on promises to their customers. Those who don’t keep this at the forefront of their public relations strategy will feel the wrath of the YouTube generation.
In 2011, a FedEx driver was filmed throwing a package containing fragile electronics over a private fence instead of delivering it the door. Earlier this year, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on camera berating one of his drivers. And most recently, United Airlines came under fire for forcibly removing a passenger from a flight when he refused to be involuntarily bumped — and you guessed it, the whole thing was caught, in several different angles, on cell phone cameras.
There’s a lot to be said about crisis communication but at the forefront of this issue are the lessons we can integrate moving forward. In another company’s misfortune, savvy entrepreneurs always find a way to capitalize. Here are just a few things that can be gleaned from United’s snafu:
1. Hope for the best, but plan for the inevitable worst-case scenario
No one starts their company hoping that they’ll end up on the front page in the worst possible light. But the brands that successfully stay out of the negative limelight have plans in place for when a crisis does happen. In the examples cited above, only FedEX made the most of the situation, immediately reaching out to customers to them know what steps had already been taken and what future changes would be made to ensure the issue is not repeated. As in any situation, the best advice is to be open, honest and proactive.
2. Understanding your customers is the key to a successful business
In the wake of United’s gaffe, Delta Airlines has come out looking like a shining alternative with their advanced polling practice. Here’s how it works: Delta asks passengers at check-in what price they’d be willing to give up their seat for. This helps avoid involuntary bumping for customers, and it also makes good economic sense. They can buy back any overbooked seats for the lowest possible amount. That is entrepreneurial thinking.
Formal statements released over a wire service need more reinforcement than they did 20 years ago. The most obvious solution to this is social media. Now the most common online activity, social media, has changed the way people think, interact and communicate — and entrepreneurs should take note. It’s important to meet your customers where they are, not talk down to them from a podium. This means engaging on social media, posting to a company blog, sending an email to loyal customers, and coming up with other creative responses that make sense for your market and your brand.
4. Reputation management is worth the investment
Whether or not you are paying attention, your online footprint cannot be erased. One angry customer with an unflattering photo can wreck havoc on your bottom line simply by posting to major review sites. A small social media brushfire can turn quickly into a raging reputation management inferno. Closely monitoring your online brand and responding to and interacting with consumers consistently will build up loyalty and social capital in a way that can counteract any damage before it even happens.
5. There is room for growth in the transportation industry
If anything, the recent spotlight on United has shown some holes in the way that overbooking is handled among every major airline. An enterprising individual with a great idea for solving these problems through technology, updated systems, customer communication or another solution that hasn’t been thought of yet, will have a captive audience.
Do you have more precious tips to share? Please share your experience in the comment section below!