In Chinese, the word for “crisis” has two intriguing alternate meanings: “danger” and “opportunity.”
Echoing White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, it seems the Chinese also believe that a crisis can lead to unforeseen opportunities. And as distasteful as it might seem when used politically, it applies quite well to a communications strategy.
Last week, the Financial Times had a piece on the importance of brand and crisis management – the basic art of defining, giving voice to and promoting a brand image, and protecting it in the face of unexpected peril in the court of public opinion.
To illustrate this, FT columnist John Gapper took Maclaren, a children’s stroller manufacturer, and analyzed what went wrong when the company tried to handle the fallout surrounding a recall of defective strollers that were causing the amputation of children’s fingers:
Outrage ensued, with messages on Twitter such as “OH MY GOD. Amputations from a stroller?!” By the time Farzad Rastegar, chief executive of Maclaren in the US and the brand’s controlling shareholder, had lunch with me in New York on Tuesday, he sounded shaken.
“Did I expect this kind of coverage? No I did not,” he said. It was hard to grasp why. The words “child” and “amputation” in a media release from the US safety regulator would surely terrify anyone.
After talking to him, I concluded that Maclaren does not have a bad story to tell – its safety standards are higher than cheaper rivals. But it has done a poor job of telling it. [emphasis added]
And that’s where we – the communications professionals – are called in to bat some serious cleanup.
Everyone’s got a perspective, and everyone deserves representation in the court of public opinion – and the fact of the matter is, Maclaren has done a better job than most other companies in its industry in terms of implementing self-imposed regulations and safety standards on their products.
The problem, of course, is that no one at Maclaren was actually highlighting this critical piece of information.
And parents – particularly those who take to the blogosphere or Twitterverse in outrage – aren’t going to want to hear that if they simply used the product as it was intended, their kid’s fingers wouldn’t have been lopped off. That’s no way to mollify your customer base.
Maclaren was in serious need of a comprehensive crisis plan – an essential element of any organization’s broader communications strategy. A crisis plan requires a lot of planning and thought before a crisis occurs, so that when the proverbial fan is hit, the response can be rapidly implemented.
Pre-assigned, media-trained team members need to be ready with key messages, risk analyses, and materials like press releases, fact sheets and where to go for additional information – all at a moment’s notice. Additionally, a crisis plan needs to be reviewed regularly so that new risks are incorporated, new employees are trained and the methods for response are reassessed.
The inescapable reality for all businesses – but particularly for those which, like Maclaren, hadn’t even a semblance of a crisis management plan in place – is that they are positively or negatively affected, in a very public way, by how they handle a situation gone awry. Thus, the opportunity presents itself.
Companies need to recognize the importance of a comprehensive crisis management plan as a part of their overall strategy – and they need to be prepared for the unexpected if they want to stay ahead of the curve.
As Confucius also said, “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”