Are There Best Practices?
30 July 2007
On occasion I receive requests from reporters to discuss best practices in crisis communications, or to comment on a particular company’s experiences or actions in the midst of a crisis.
First of all, as a general rule I do not offer opinions about a particular company’s crisis management actions, insofar as offering criticism and analysis of specific tactics, or statements. It is impossible for anyone with only a passing knowledge of a situation (in other words, doesn’t know any more than what he/she learns from the media). If there is any constant in crisis management, it is that managing a crisis, and all the legal, financial, regulatory, competitive and reputational challenges that go along with it, is far more complex than what actually is reported in the media.
But I do talk about best practices and trends (hence this blog), so I was happy to respond to the reporter’s questions about that. But it occurred to me that this reporter’s thesis was that a great communications strategy will pull a company out of the depths of a crisis. Not so. It would be arrogant to believe that, notwithstanding all the smart people in our vocation, and all the good work that is done, a PR plan solves a crisis.
At the end of the day, strong and inspired leadership, coupled with a well-thought-out and equally well executed business plan, is far more important than some clever messaging and smart proactive outreach.
Don’t get me wrong. A company cannot recover from a crisis without good communication. And bad communication can significantly compound a crisis situation.
But let’s take the JetBlue experience for a moment. (No, I am not going to break my cardinal rule described above). The airline did not get into the winter pickle that it did because of bad PR. Rather, it was a severe storm which exposed some critical flaws in its operational structure and business plan. And while some clever communication made the public, the media and perhaps shareholders feel better about the company, it isn’t any customer bill of rights or CEO appearances on Letterman that will deliver the company back to the ranks of the admired. Rather, it will be by showing the traveling public, the media and shareholders that it learned some lessons, made adjustments to its operations and policies, and does a terrific job the next time the blizzard hits. In other words, a business solution to the crisis.
So what’s the lesson for PR managers? Namely, they shouldn’t feel compelled to stick to PR solutions when sitting at the crisis table with the CEO.