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Six Crisis Management Myths

In the past month alone, brands ranging from Burger King and Penn State to Chick-fil-A and CelebBoutique have grappled with serious reputational threats. These days, it’s almost routine for communications pros to be managing some kind of crisis situation along with proactive PR programs. Yet true ”crisis management” is probably a misnomer. Though there are principles that apply to many situations, much of the analysis and advice from people like me comes in hindsight. Armchair crisis managers sometimes forget that the conventional wisdom isn’t always relevant in the heat of the moment. Here, then, are my favorite crisis management myths and misconceptions.

Crisis Management Myth #1. The Tylenol case is still the industry standard.

With respect to Johnson & Johnson and Burson-Marsteller, this 1982 crisis management “classic” is badly outdated and likely exaggerated. As a victim of a frightening attack, the company faced a sympathetic press and public. And while it deserves credit for the fast introduction of tamper-proof packaging months later (under FDA mandate), its immediate response was a poor prescription for today’s crisis experts. For example, it took the company eight days to respond to the first signs of crisis, an eternity in today’s compressed media environment.

Crisis Management Myth #2. A business crisis, by definition, is impossible to predict.

Not always. In fact, most crises grow out of foreseeable ills, and many have happened before, or are long-simmering situations left untreated or concealed, like the Penn State scandal. A study by the Institute for Crisis Management showed that sixty-five percent of business crises from 1990 to 2009 were ”smoldering” or slow burn situations as opposed to thirty-five percent that were sudden events. A random catastrophe like the Tylenol poisonings is truly rare, accounting for roughly seven to eight percent of crises situations as opposed to product defects, lawsuits, mismanagement, and other theoretically foreseeable happenings.

Crisis Management Myth #3. Any crisis is manageable with advance planning and preparation.

There’s not really a handbook for handling a business calamity. We sometimes preach advance planning and preparation as if they can prevent or preempt the damage, but often these measures can only shorten the window of negative scrutiny or moderate the tone of the resulting media coverage and chatter, at best.

Crisis Management Myth #4. Never stonewall media inquiries.

Professional communicators warn against ignoring journalists in a crisis because they’ll write the story with or without you and because it can harm media relations for the future. But we’ve all done it. When you don’t have the proper information or cannot legally share it, it’s better not to engage at all. You’ll take the heat, but staying silent can avoid worsening the situation when the facts aren’t clear.

Crisis Management Myth #5. In a crisis, always get the top guy involved.

This is where some inexperienced handlers jump the gun. Many negative situations are better handled by a corporate officer with enough seniority to be authoritative but not enough to jeopardize the CEO office or distract from other critical business. And where relevant, local market managers with community roots are nearly always preferable to home office execs. CEO involvement is usually best reserved for the most acute crisis situations such as those involving loss of life.

Crisis Management Myth # 6. Media and message training can save the day.

In my experience, media training is overrated, and, more importantly, it’s not often possible when a crisis is fresh. No PR professional or crisis manager will negate the importance of a blueprint for a business calamity. Yet, John Weber of Dezenhall Resources summed up the intangible and chaotic aspects of crisis PR when he said, ”Given the choice between a good plan and a good leader, I’d take a good leader every time.”

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About Dorothy Crenshaw

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and Creative Director of Crenshaw Communications, a boutique PR firm focused on marketing and reputation building strategies for consumer and technology brands under the banner "Creative Public Relations for a Digital World." She founded her firm after a 15-year career in marketing PR that included senior posts at Edelman and Grey Advertising's GCI Group.

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