Cast your mind back to 2014. Ebola was in the news, as was the death of actor Robin Williams. Can you recall anything about the death of a pilot who crashed while testing out a spacecraft for tourists over the Mojave Desert?
If you can, you may remember the response given by the spacecraft’s parent company Virgin Media. Leading from the front, owner Sir Richard Branson flew immediately to the site, keeping followers updated every step of the way on social media. The Virgin Communications team immediately went to work creating messaging around how hard space travel is to conquer, but how ultimately worthwhile it is. They told us this poor man’s death wasn’t in vain and that the project would move forward in his honour. We believed them, we believed Branson, the news cycle moved forward and this year Virgin Galactic launched its astronaut readiness programme.
Flashback to 2010 when a BP-owned oil rig exploded off the Gulf of Mexico leading to one of the largest oil spills in US history. It took almost 90 days to get the spill under control… and BP’s boss? He started a blame game. Two months later he told journalists: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back”. Just months later Tony Hayward was forced to resign and BP’s reputation lay in tatters.
Crises come and go, some are of the proportion that Virgin Media and BP faced, others can be characterised more as blips in the road. However you look at them, whatever their scale, you are faced with a choice. Burying your head in the sand will go some way but it might just be possible to reframe the story, build a different narrative and, like Virgin Media, turn a tragedy into something positive and impactful. At the very least you can make a serious dent in damage limitation.
How to go about this? How do you capture the right tone or tell the right story? The answer is by learning from history and believing that almost every crisis can be used to change the way you do business, for the better.
Take, for example, a faulty product. Something about it is off, it’s attracting criticism on social media. Perhaps there are some fears over its safety. From washing machines to car parts, this isn’t an unknown phenomenon. How can you use it to tell a better story?
First and foremost, take the issue seriously and see it from a customer’s point of view. Recognise that if you have a great reputation you already have credit in the bank. Draw on that credit and don’t be afraid to engage with your public. Second, if you need to, say sorry. Be more Branson and less Hayward. Passing blame and refusing to take credibility chips away at trust. This is the perfect opportunity to show your human face. This is the perfect opportunity for your CEO to talk directly to the people who matter most, your customers. There is publicity, there is a chance to show you care and a chance to move the story on, on your terms.
There’s also the chance to be clever with your messaging, turning bad news into an opportunity to talk about business in a positive light. Talk about how quickly you responded, talk about the measures you’ve put in place to deal with the issue and how you’ve changed your processes.
Take KFC as an example. In 2018, they ran out chicken. Hungry customers across the UK and Ireland were left open mouthed, hungry and angry. The KFC PR team jumped into action with some brilliant adverts in newspapers and on their own website immediately owning their mistake, rearranging the letters to spell FCK. They set up a page allowing customers to check the chicken status of their nearest restaurant and, perhaps most impressively, managed to demonstrate that they were human and knew exactly the kind of apology that would make customers smile and move on from the situation quickly.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that KFC knew their customer. They knew something funny and a little quirky would cover over a multitude of sins. They knew how much their British and Irish customers would like the cheeky wording, while also being present to deal with complaints and inquiries.
The opportunity to reveal a human, playful character was a blessing in disguise and indeed some would say a masterclass in crisis planning. And this brings us to the nub: planning. If you’re planning on being a success, then you need to plan for when that success falls by the wayside.
Spend some time planning your worst-case scenarios. See them from both your business and your customers’ viewpoints and decide how you can achieve the twin goals of minimising damage and reframing the story. Remember that reality is just perception, so make your reality one that chimes with your customers and turns a crisis into an opportunity.