The ever more globalization, development of technology and new media create a complex communication environment for people to deal with business. Everyone can speak out his or her own opinion and let others get the message immediately. Crises can break so easily and unpredictably that it is important and worthy for us to pay attention to crisis public relations and study the principles to deal with it. With values and ethics playing a more important role in business, reputation has been placed on top of the agenda by many companies. As a result, how to establish, maintain and restore reputation is critical to a company’s long-term strategies and development. As public relations practitioners, helping organizations make strategic communication plan when they are forced to deal with crisis is an important indicator of the quality of their work. I would like to talk about here how companies make their first reactions when a crisis breaks, and what kind of first reaction strategy will be the most effective and appropriate in different situations.
In one case, On Aug. 23, 2008, a Toronto Maple Leaf Foods plant was confirmed as being involved in the outbreak of the food-borne illness, caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. A day later, Maple Leaf upgraded a precautionary recall of 23 of its products, issued the previous week, to all 220 packaged meats from the plant, which has been shut down. The company has estimated the recall will directly cost it at least $20 million, with further costs expected due to lost sales and advertising to rebuild its image. The company has been highly visible since the crisis hit. The firm’s CEO, Michael McCain, held press conferences and posted an apology on its web site. A company spokeswoman did interviews in a wide range of media. The firm also ran TV spots and took out advertisements in newspapers.
In another case, Ford Motor Company and its close ally Firestone Tires faced a serious crisis when many Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone AT/ATX tires rolled over as a consequence of tire failures. In 1999 the first fatalities occurred in Saudi Arabia and not much later similar accidents were reported in Venezuela. Ford immediately reacted by blaming the weather and vehicle owners for under-inflating their tires. However, Ford also began replacing tires. It was not until March 2000 when a Ford Explorer rollover in Texas USA left one of the car occupants brain-damaged and paraplegic that the American authorities intervened, triggering a massive tire recall and a lawsuit brought by the victim’s family. The case was settled out of court in January 2001 (Bowe, 2001), but by that time many more cases and fatalities were reported and therefore neither Ford nor Firestone could continue blaming the weather or car owners. They, instead, were blaming each other.
In the first case, the CEO of the company stepped up to make a statement promptly after the crisis breakout, making a positive reaction at first time. He was honest and transparent about the situation, and emphasized the positives by letting people know the company had taken measures and indicated it would continue to investigate, reassuring people that he was taking the situation seriously and wouldn’t risk the health of his employees or customers. The crisis was effectively controlled and reputation slowly restored as time went by.
In the second case, they conducted their first reaction as denial of mistakes and refusal of making up. They didn’t make the appropriate initial crisis management to control the crisis and solve the problem, leading the negative effect wider and worse and badly damaging the reputation and images of the companies.
The key point of the effective first reaction is quickness. Providing a response in the first hour after the crisis happen helps us tell the truth to the public and make clear our attitude, thus turning the negative position into a positive image and controlling the crisis in a short term. Another important factor is accuracy. People want accurate information about what happened and how that event might affect them. Speaking with one voice in a crisis is a way to maintain accuracy and make the company look consistent, which will help the company gain trust and support of the public. Moreover, initial crisis management should also take into consideration to express concern and sympathy for employees and victims that are involved in the crisis. Excellence theory teaches us to communicate symmetrically and achieve mutual benefit. Expressions of concern help to lessen reputational damage and to reduce financial losses. News media and internet play an important role in the crisis response strategy of first reaction. They are becoming valuable tools for collecting information about warning signs and crisis as well as options for communicating with stakeholders during a crisis. However, they also have added the risk of being in crisis and complexity of crisis. As speed and reach are more important at the initial stage of the crisis, it is reasonable and necessary for us to devote considerable attention to media relations.
In other situations, making a statement at first hour is not the only way of initial crisis response. In some industries, like tobacco or fur clothes industries, the incidents involved are always controversial, referring to human rights, animal rights or environment issues. As we all say, if a plane lands safely, it isn’t news; if a plane crashes, it is news. The negative news or tragedies usually spread fast and widely, with people often paying more attention on them. So the more you talk, the more mistakes you will make; the more publicity you make, the worse the crisis will be.
In this case, the proper way to make first reaction in a crisis is to keep quiet, take effective measures with a low key strategy and let time fade the unhappiness. Companies would be willing to talk about positive things that will benefit them, rather than more reluctant to reveal negative information. If the crisis will seriously damage the reputation of the company, they will make every effort to withdraw the information and keep silence at the first stage. Sometimes, it is the legislation and law issues that prevent the company to speak its voice at first hour. They will keep silence to the public on the surface and take seriously behind. They will investigate the incident, make up for the damage step by step, and maybe make the statement and uncover the details when the public are less interested in it. When it comes to conflicts of interest, excellence theory would be less useful than the two-way asymmetrical method in the crisis communication.