Inside the Profession

Friday Five: Damage Control 101: Current Crises and Lessons to Learn

2013 hosted a variety of crises (take a look at our list of the worst), the last major incident being Target’s system breach, which led to the sharing of credit card information for millions of shoppers. In the early weeks of 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie found himself in hot water due to the “Bridgegate” scandal. Both crises have gained national attention, and with reputations at stake, both require major public relations TLC. Whether it’s on behalf of an international corporation or a political figure, good public relations is invaluable in crisis situations, and crisis expertise can greatly impact future outcomes.

In this week’s PRSA “Friday Five” post – an analysis of the week’s biggest public relations and business news and commentary – we look at all things crisis. Learning from Governor Christie’s crisis, the governor’s best PR moves, Targets plan of action after a major data breach and important components of a believable apology are all covered in this week’s post. We also look at the American Red Cross’ modern take on crisis communications.

Lessons From Chris Christie’s Career-Threatening Crisis (PR News)

Described as “career-threatening,” Governor Christie’s current crisis is quickly becoming one of the most publicized political scandals in recent years. The crisis control in this situation offers various lessons and examples of how to address and combat a major political crisis, or Friday Five Logoothers of lesser severity. Bob Chlopak, founding partner of DC crisis firm CLS, analyzed different aspects of the governor’s case and pointed out several learning points.

One major takeaway that Chlopak highlights is “when leaders of large organizations experience problems outside of the main office, I don’t think people hold the chief executive or governor accountable. But here, you have two people very close to the governor… so questions are going to be asked about what this says about the culture, temperament and tolerance of a Christie administration.” For the full analysis on Governor Christie’s crisis from a public relations perspective, visit the article.

Crisis gurus praise Chris Christie’s response (Politico)

While no one welcomes a crisis, handling it appropriately and successfully is a major feat. There may be no definitive end in sight for Governor Christie’s scandal; however, he’s being applauded for how it is currently being handled. Larry Smith, a senior consultant at the Institute for Crisis Management, said “his move to take full responsibility and to dismiss the implicated aides earned Christie an ‘A+.’”

Christie was also applauded because he “reinforced the straight-talking, no-nonsense persona that he’s cultivated on the national level,” the article states. The article highlights winning aspects of Christie’s crisis strategy, but also plays devil’s advocate for potential situations that could unfold in the future. Visit the article for the whole story.

Target CEO promises ‘significant changes’ after data breach (Ragan)

During the last weeks of 2013 and through the beginning of 2014, Target has been combating a major crisis: due to a data breach, 70 to 110 million shoppers fell victim to credit card data theft during prime holiday shopping season. Adding to the problem, the chain initially under-reported the total number of customers affected at 40 million, significantly less than the true total. The chain has been in high gear attempting damage control and offering resolutions to customers.

Target’s CEO Gregg Steinhafel “published an open letter to customers Monday morning in which he also apologized. He also laid out the company’s responses to the data theft, including hiring a team of security experts to investigate the matter and offering free credit monitoring to customers,” the article states. In addition to the initial apology, the chain has published the open letter through a variety of outlets in an effort to explain the situation and future steps to customers. For the full story and more information on a similar crisis experienced by Neiman Marcus, visit the article.

4 conditions for an effective apology (PR Daily)

Apologies may not be an appropriate tactic for every crisis, however, when applicable, they need to be effective and believable. The article offers examples of both successful and unsuccessful apologies that have been used in the past. For apologies to “send a powerful message and produce hugely beneficial outcomes,” they must adhere to the following conditions:

  • The organization and its leaders truly have something to apologize for
  • The senior-most leader genuinely and sincerely is sorry
  • He or she apologizes from the heart, not from a script
  • The apology is conveyed through more than one channel

The takeaway: “If you have to apologize, and you mean it, go big. That’s the teachable moment for business leaders and crisis managers.”  Visit the article for more apology examples and scenarios.

Red Cross offers key lessons in crisis communications (Ragan)

Due to the nature of its business, the American Red Cross frequently faces crises and has become well-versed in crisis communications. One of its key tools for communication during a crisis: social media.  Laura Howe, vice president for public relations for the American Red Cross offers insight into their strategy and on how useful social media can be used “to detect a crisis and also deal with a crisis.” Comparing social media to “a canary in a coal mine,” it is a major indictor of trouble brewing.

In order to effectively use social media as a watch dog, “the Red Cross embraces a social engagement philosophy that emphasizes three things:”

  • Empower social communities
  • Grow a network
  • Strive to make social engagement

Through proper application, social media can serve as key part of crisis communications detection and action plans. The article offers more details on the American Red Cross’ strategy and how to incorporate social media into your plan.

Faith Goumas is the public relations associate at the Public Relations Society of America.

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Faith Goumas

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