When Does Crisis Management Start?

James E. Burke, then-CEO of Johnson & Johnson, explaining the Tylenol “caplet” pill designed to prevent product tampering.

Crisis management—often referenced as crisis communications—is the pinnacle of the public relations profession. As a specialty, it generates the highest profile, highest stakes, and highest fees. The reasoning is simple: organizations and individuals’ reputation, revenue and routine existence are in the balance when crisis erupts. Companies with in-house PR staff frequently enlist outside agencies to guide crisis management. The risks demand maximum public relations effort.

But in terms of maximum PR effort, when does crisis management start? The late public relations luminary Al Golin coined “the trust bank,” the amassing of goodwill through good works during times of calm. Such deposits of trust can make stakeholders less quick to doubt and vilify a crisis’ central figures when trouble comes. Concurrently, organizations should develop specific crisis communication plans during calm periods, playing “what if” to anticipate sources of conflict and preparing channels for accurate information.

While prominent good works and diligent media planning are crucial, the bedrock of crisis management is honest and beneficial daily action of a company, a nonprofit, a government, a team, a celebrity. Two archetypical crisis studies illuminate this powerful fact:

Johnson & Johnson and the Tylenol Poisonings: In 1982, seven people died in the Chicago area after ingesting Tylenol capsules laced with cynaide. The drug’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, was cleared of any product defects or tampering taking place within its factories. Still, Johnson & Johnson took a position of total responsibility, recalling Tylenol products and designing packaging to forestall future poisonings. Another poisoning case in 1986 led J&J to take further steps, introducing the solid “caplet” pill. Throughout, the company remained open and accessible to the public, law enforcement, and the media. Johnson & Johnson’s prompt, transparent and costly response has been called the finest example of crisis management.

BP and the Gulf Oil Spill: In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst marine oil spill in history. British Petroleum, BP, operated the rig. They quickly fell into fingerpointing with rig contractors instead of taking unambiguous ownership of the crisis. BP CEO Tony Haywood wore dress shirts while facing news crews on fouled beaches and committed numerous gaffes. Later investigation showed defective cement used on the rig caused the disaster, with BP the chief responsible party. BP’s performance is widely cited as the nadir of crisis management.

Going much deeper than deportment before the media, note the fundamental difference between the two examples. Johnson & Johnson’s manufacturing of Tylenol was impeccable. BP’s practices in the Gulf were substandard, resulting in death and destruction. The oil company’s crisis failure was the inevitable manifestation of its daily failure to conduct business in an upstanding manner. How many other organizations and individuals have shown themselves to be “a crisis waiting to happen?” How many have ignored God’s crisis management manual, the Bible?

Proverbs 24:10 (GNT)

If you are weak in a crisis, you are weak indeed.

Take an inventory of recent PR crises. How many could have been prevented with better practices and preparation?

How can Christian communicators speak “truth to power” when their organizations are failing in daily practices, planning, or communications execution, fanning a crisis?

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