When a crisis hits, armchair PR pundits often like to critique its handling, which is easy if you’re not the one in the hot seat. Self-appointed PR crisis management experts urge businesses to “get ahead of the story,” to be “transparent,” or to “take responsibility”—all time tested rules from the PR crisis management playbook.
But in the real world, things are often messy. When a truly reputation busting event occurs, journalists are clamoring for comment, social media is blowing up, advisers are offering conflicting advice…or maybe key players aren’t even reachable within the first hour.
PR Crisis Management Winners
But sometimes potentially damaging situations are handled well. Here are a few examples of this year’s most skillful PR crisis management.
Under Armour Skates a Fine Line
In the runup to the 2014 winter Olympics, new, high-tech speed skating suits from apparel sponsor Under Armour were touted as giving a performance edge to the U.S. speed skating team. It was brilliant exposure for the brand—that is until the team’s performance fell far short of expectations. Worse, some of the athletes blamed their lackluster times on a flaw in the suit design.
Under Armour was caught between arguing with the very team it sponsored or admitting that the suits may have played a part in the poor outcome. Instead, it publicly supported the team’s decision to revert to older suits (also made by Under Armour) while reminding observers that the same skaters had turned in stellar times in pre-race heats while wearing the newer apparel.
Unfortunately for the U.S. team, the skating performance never improved with no one coming anywhere near the medal podium. 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 Banishes Sterling
When L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was exposed for making racist remarks, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s response was a PR management crisis power drive. He slammed Sterling with a $2.5 million fine and banned him from the sport for life. Sterling’s actions followed the classic crisis playbook—act swiftly and decisively while articulating your brand and community values. The language in particular was a winner: Silver expressed his own anger and distress and apologized on behalf of the association, showing personal commitment as well as professional leadership.
Contrast Sterling’s handling of the situation with that of NFL president Roger Goodell after the infamous Ray Rice video came to light. Although the NFL‘s dilemma is arguably more complicated than the situation faced by the NBA, its initial response to video of Rice punching his fiancée was underwhelming. Goodell ultimately acknowledged that the two-game suspension was the wrong move, 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”
Some reality TV watchers question TLC’s motives for canceling its hit show, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” after news broke that “Mama June” had rekindled a relationship with a convicted sex offender. And it’s true that the show’s ratings were down from their peak, but whatever the reason for the decision, I give TLC PR crisis management high marks for acting swiftly and decisively. It was the only sensible course, but the network limited the damage with the speed of its move and clarity of language.
Less than twenty-four hours after TMZ broke the story, TLC pulled the plug on the show with a statement affirming its commitment to the “health and welfare of these remarkable children.” Contrast this to A&E’s response when Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson disparaged gay people. A&E suspended Robertson but stalled on announcing a decision about the show and then reinstated him after a viewer backlash. The show did go on…but its ratings took a dive. The network’s dithering response ultimately hurt its reputation and distracted from the show itself.
The iOS Update that Wasn’t
Apple had plenty of mini-crises in 2014, but the flawed iOS 8 update was by far the most serious.
iOS 8.1 was meant to be an upgrade, addressing connectivity and performance issues for iOS 8, but the update went badly wrong. It caused some users to actually lose cell service, while others posted about Touch ID not working. Spotting user complaints on social media, Apple moved quickly to contain the damage, yanking iOS 8.1 within an hour of its launch and offering a workaround for those whose service was affected. Embarrassing, sure, but the action quieted the worst of the social mob’s complaints.
In fact, its PR crisis management handling of the situation came in contrast to that of another potentially troublesome situation—the one known as #bendgate. After some reviewers posted suggestions that a structural weakness caused the device to bend slightly under pressure, the brand adopted more defensive messaging. The PR verdict on its response was mixed, but, here, too, it may have been the right strategy. Assuming the flexible phone problem was real, it seemed to be a very limited problem and a fix or recall for a bendy iPhone would have been a logistical nightmare.
No doubt, there were many more brand crisis situations over the course of 2014, and the most well handled will probably never be recognized. Those are the ones that didn’t even happen, or that we never heard about, thanks to foresight, preparation, and a smart PR crisis management response.
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