It’s hard to find terrific examples of crisis management PR, presumably because we don’t hear about the crises that never happened. When a true reputation emergency hits, communications experts like to criticize it and offer retroactive advice. Armchair pundits urge businesses to “get ahead of the story,” – good counsel, in theory. It’s not so easy when you’re the one in the PR hotseat.
In the real world, things are more complicated, even chaotic. Smartphones are blowing up, social media feeds are flooded, and conflicting advice abounds. Sometimes key advisers aren’t even reachable within the first hour.
Yet there are times when potentially fatal situations are brilliantly managed. Here are a few examples of this year’s most skillful crisis management.
Virgin Galactic’s Tragic Test. CEO Richard Branson showed why he’s a master of communications in the wake of the fatal crash of the Virgin Galactic test flight in October. First, he rushed to the crash site to show that he was completely engaged by the tragedy and that an investigation was top priority. Branson then issued a statement that mixed compassion with determination, pledging to get to the bottom of the accident, yet reinforcing his commitment to commercial space travel.
Renee Zellweger Faces Critics. It may seem silly to include a case of apparent cosmetic surgery on this list, but when Zellweger appeared at a screening with a dramatically altered look, the media coverage was relentless and the social media reaction fierce. For an actor whose most important creative instrument is her face, that’s a career-threatening situation. But Zellweger kept her cool, offering a polite response to the uproar but largely letting friends and advocates fight on her behalf. As crisis expert and author Eric Dezenhall advises, sometimes less is more.
Under Armour Skates Around Trouble. Just before the 2014 winter Olympics, new speedskating suits from Under Armour were promoted as offering a high-tech performance edge to the U.S. speed skating team. It was terrific exposure for the brand – at least, until the U.S. team stumbled in early races. Some thought a flaw in the suit design was to blame. Under Armour was caught between arguing with the players it sponsored, or admitting that the suits may have been at fault. Instead, it publicly supported the team’s decision to revert to older suits (also made by Under Armour), while reminding us that the same skaters had turned in stellar times in pre-race heats while wearing the newer apparel. Sadly, the U.S. performance never improved. But Under Armour raced past the controversy and looked like a team player when it announced it would continue its sponsorship for eight more years. Well played.
Silver Ousts Sterling. After L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded making racist comments, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver slammed Sterling with a $2.5 million fine and banned him from basketball. Sterling’s response was a PR power play; he acted swiftly and decisively, while articulating NBA values. The language in particular was a winner; Silver conveyed anger and distress and apologized on behalf of the association, showing personal commitment as well as professional leadership. Contrast Sterling’s strategy with that of NFL president Roger Goodell after Ray Rice punched his then-fiancee on video. Goodell ultimately acknowledged that the initial two-game suspension of Rice was inadequate, but his weak response, and the fact that he claimed not to have seen the full video (which was available for the asking) hurt his credibility, to say the least.
“Boo Boo” Goes “Bye-Bye.” TLC made a quick decision to cancel “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” after news broke that “Mama June” had taken up with an ex-boyfriend who is a convicted sex offender. I give the network high marks for acting decisively and making its position clear. Less than twenty-four hours after TMZ broke the story, TLC pulled the plug on its hit show for the sake of “the health and welfare of these remarkable children.” Contrast the move to A&E’s response when Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson made anti-gay remarks in a magazine interview. Robertson was suspended, but the network stalled on announcing a decision about the show. It then reinstated the patriarch, but the damage was done.