Crisis Management–How Not to Wash your Brand out to Sea

It could never happen.  Our systems are foolproof.  These ____ have never failed.

British Petroleum made variations of these statements over time and learned the hard way that arrogance doesn’t guarantee safety.  To further compound their sinking public perception, the company CEO was on “The Today Show”  last week and said to Meredith Vieira: “it wasn’t our accident.”   

I was participating in Brandchat last week on twitter (#brandchat), a weekly online conversation about brands.  The BP public relations debacle came up and a chap from England stated unequivocally that the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana wasn’t BP’s fault–it was their supplier’s fault–so British Petroleum shouldn’t be blamed.

Guess what? Consumers don’t care if your products are pumped out of the ocean floor by a supplier, made by an overseas vendor or intentionally contaminated by an unknown saboteur.  If your name is on the product, you own the brand and the brand damage. 

British Petroleum has worked hard over many years to create environmentally-sound programs and build their reputation as a “green” company in the U.S.  By disavowing any responsibility for their methods of securing raw materials, they’ve flushed a good brand out to sea.         

I worked for a company that went through a Class 1 food recall a number of years ago.  A long-time manufacturer for us had a new production line with state-of-the-art equipment and practices.  But soon after this equipment was brought on-line, one of the switches failed–but only stopped working intermittently.  Because the equipment was new, the person monitoring the line thought the alarms were just start-up glitches.  The test samples taken every 7 minutes showed no problems.  And so the product shipped.

Unfortunately, some cleaning solution from another line had been allowed into the packaging line.  We started hearing about tainted product when consumer response phone lines started to heat up in certain pockets of the country.  My lead consumer manager came to me with her theory of what was wrong.  Our operations people shot us down and said that it couldn’t be because we had a new line that was infallible.  Fortunately, our CEO took the attitude that “the buck stops here.”

I set up a phone bank with my marketing staff, because we had only hours until the media broke the news.  More importantly, I knew that my staff would be far more caring and helpful than an outsourced telemarketing staff.  We took shifts sleeping on the floor of our offices to maintain 24-hour phone coverage over a holiday weekend.   We cried with mothers who had no health insurance, urging them to take their children to emergency rooms at 2:00am–sometimes putting co-pays on my credit card so that their infants could receive treatment.  We offered to pay the medical bills for everyone who was injured.  There were a few people who took advantage of this offer in order to treat prior conditions, but we erred on the side of generosity so that those who were affected would receive medical care without delay.  We treated everyone who called as if they were a family member affected by the crisis.  Because we admitted the problem, took full responsibility, staffed the phones 24/7 with sympathetic employees who commiserated with our customers and went far beyond anyone’s expectations for help and comfort, the crisis passed and our customers remained loyal to the brand.

I wonder what BP’s CEO would be saying if his family and friends made their living as part of the fishing fleet in Louisiana?  If his relatives were idled, perhaps being prohibited to go out in their boats for years, would he be so cavalier as to say the accident wasn’t BP’s fault?  Would he be comforted knowing that the contractor who built the oil drilling rig and the vendor operating it would be sued, not his company that commisioned the work or profited from the consumer end-product?  How will BP earn back the public’s trust when their foot-dragging and stonewalling have tried to deflect criticism rather than solve the problem?

Does your company have a crisis plan?  Who would you put in front of the cameras if the media contacted you and said they wanted a comment on a disaster that you just found out about an hour ago?  Would your media spokesperson be ready with facts and remorse?  Or would your CEO say “it wasn’t our accident?”

When disaster is looming for your brand:

  • be humble
  • be human
  • be prepared
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    One Comment

    1. Posted May 13, 2010 at 4:10 am | Permalink

      Great post Mary!

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