Crisis Management Might Not Be Rocket Science, But it Ain’t Simple Either
23 October 2007
I am moved to comment on an op-ed I read in the October 11 issue of PR Week. The piece, entitled, “Put public’s interest first in a crisis,” looked at the Tylenol product tampering incident and drew the following profound lesson:
In an ideal world organizations would know exactly how to respond to any given crisis on any given day. That isn’t realistic. But if its decision-making is rooted in sound, agreed upon principles that emphasize putting the public’s interests first, not only will making critical decisions under the pressure of a crisis happen more efficiently, the company’s interests will ultimately be served.
To be sure, J&J DOES deserve credit for the manner it which it handled this crisis.
But the application of such banalities as “putting the public’s interest first” really does little to help today’s executives to better manage crises. Although such statements do serve to remind us why crisis communications counselors are not held to the same level of esteem as rocket scientists and brain surgeons.
Not only does the author not distinguish the difference between the dynamics that caused the underlying crisis and the way in which a company handles a crisis, but he also fails to recognize that crisis situations are complex — far more complex than they might appear solely from news coverage.
With the greatest of respect to J&J, the Tylenol product tampering incident was a simple crisis challenge compared to some of those we have seen in more recent years. The current controversy involving children’s cold medicine – in which J&J is centrally involved – is a more relevant case study of the challenges of crisis management.
“The public interest” is not always so clear. And who’s role is it to define “the public interest?”
Historically, acting in the public’s interest meant abiding by the law, and providing the goods and services the public wanted, at a price the public was willing to pay.
Not any more.
Now we have NGOs, media pundits and bloggers attempting to define “acceptable” corporate behavior. But who granted them such authority? How are they accountable?
Let’s take a look at some of the higher profile crises over the past several years, and see if we can apply the “public’s interest” test to them:
1. Merck/Vioxx (withdrawal of prescription drug) — Well, they did act in the public’s interest. They withdrew the product voluntarily, and did not violate any laws. But look at the outcome. While they are prevailing in most of the lawsuits, their reputation is tarnished, shareholders lost a bundle, management was turned over, and the entire regulatory model for the sector is suspect.
2. Dubai Port World (contract to own/operate ports) – One could argue that the efficient operation of the nation’s ports IS in the public interest. And there was no evidence that DPW could do anything other than operate the ports efficiently. But look at the outcome. While selfish and self-destructive political interests might have been served, there’s a real question as to whether the public’s interest was.
3. JetBlue (operations meltdown during winter storm) – The airline won points for the manner in which it communicated following the crisis, but let’s keep in mind here that their crisis was really self-inflicted: a combination of growing too fast and on the cheap, and some very bad operating decisions at the front end of a winter storm.
4. HP (pretexting scandal) – Did the public even have an “interest” here??
5. Guidant (recall of implantable cardiac defibrillator ICD) — While Guidant’s behavior in this crisis will never find its way into a best practices textbook, it may be the media itself that was acting contrary to the public’s interest. In a December 6, 2006 report in the Wall Street Journal, “Slowdown in Heart-Device Market May Harm Patients, Doctors Fear ,” Dr. Eric Prystowsky of St Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, commented on the media coverage in the wake of the Guidant recall: “Undoubtedly there are people who have died as a consequence of this climate of fear.” The Journal reported that Dr. Prystowsky knew of at least two people who died suddenly after choosing not to have ICDs implanted in their hearts.
6. Bausch & Lomb (withdrawal of contact lens solution) — The bottom line here was that the company had to withdraw a product because its users were unwilling to use the product properly. But still the company bore the brunt of the criticism.
7. Spiking Energy Prices – A case could be made that everyone (politicians, oil companies, environmental activists, etc.) are acting in their own interests, and that the “public’s interest” is simply the outcome of this messy political pitched battle. But based on the old rule, described above, the oil companies ARE acting in the public’s interest by following the law and attempting to provide a product that the public demands, at a price the public is willing to pay. It’s the behavior of politicians and NGOs that should really be brought into question.
8. TJX (criminal theft of credit and debit card information from company computers) — FBI and Secret Service encouraged the company NOT to disclose the criminal breach because it would compromise the investigation, therefore creating greater risk for cardholders. But because information was leaked to the media it was TJX that took the brunt of criticism supposedly for acting contrary to the public’s interest, even the company made every reasonable effort to communicate to and help consumers.
These are just a small handful of the many crises that have dominated the headlines in recent years. But you can see just from these that “putting the public’s interest first” simply doesn’t cut it here.
If only crisis management were so easy.