October 23, 2017

Role of Public Relations during Public Reactions

In the past seven years as an HR and PR professional, I have always wondered what makes people or organizations react differently in moments of crises. A product or brand may have remained unknown after hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad-spend; just one crisis, one controversy and everybody is talking about the product.

Will crisis always lead to the downfall of an organization? Can it be ever handled so as to convey a positive image of the organization? Can the crisis ever be turned into an opportunity to show the core values of the organization? Here’s a good example to begin with.

On June 17, 2012, Clayton Hove of the ad agency KK Bold, tweeted

“Saw a bird had crapped on a Smart Car. Totaled it”

He was poking fun of the size of the Smart Car (a new electric, eco-friendly car), hinting that the car was so small even bird droppings of a single bird could totally damage the car! The tweet, by huge exaggeration, was meant to make the small size of the car look silly. It was a bit embarrassing for the company.

The company, SmartCar USA, could have gone into a defensive mode. They could have come down harshly upon the tweet and accused Hove of indirectly snubbing researchers or pursued the legal course, accusing Hove of maligning the image of the company.

They, however, decided to take a very different path.

Two days later, the company tweeted

“Couldn’t have been one bird.
Sounds more like 4.5 million. (Seriously, we did the math).”

The company had actually researched the weight of the droppings of one bird and, in a good-natured spirit, calculated how many such droppings it would take to damage the car! Not just that, SmartCar USA also published a funny Infographic along with the tweet!

From what could have become a source of embarrassment, the company, in one single tweet, won the hearts of people all around. The sense of humour was highly appreciated and it remains a memorable lesson in Public Relations (PR) skills.

Crises and Public Relations (PR)

Unfortunately, almost all crisis is fundamentally negative in nature and unless the PR department acts swiftly and smartly, these occasions can severely damage the organization’s credibility, hurt sales, tarnish the brand image, and, in extreme cases, kill brands and force organizations out of business.

PR, at critical times, has the ability to tremendously reduce damage, quickly take control and prevent the situation from deteriorating further. One of the most common misconceptions is that PR skills are useful only to generate publicity; actually it goes way beyond.

PR is a leadership and management function, targeted at sending out structured communication content to third parties. The first and foremost role of PR is to ensure that organizational goals and expectations the society keeps from the organization remain consistent, as experts like Latimore Dan and others view it. That means PR must conceive, design, deliver and execute communications that expand the influence of the organization. Handling crises is certainly a top priority for PR.

Let’s take a look at two extreme cases of PR exercises.

What not to do: The case of United Airlines

On April 9, 2017 United Airlines personnel approached four passengers, carrying valid tickets and seated on a flight about to take off, to give up their seats for airline crew members. At least one passenger David Dao refused to give up his seat.

In the heat of the moment, the airline and security personnel physically dragged Dao out of the aircraft. Many passengers found this very disturbing and unethical. Some recorded the video of the entire event. In no time, the video went viral over social media, and the airline’s reputation dipped in no time.

The airline issued a statement, apologizing for having overbooked the flight. Its twitter message was worded too diplomatically and did not directly acknowledge its poor handling or rude behavior. Subsequently when two more incidents in the same month surfaced, the poor PR in the first case led to these two incidents being highlighted on social media, further degrading the airline’s reputation.

What to do: Tylenol  

Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the multinational pharma giant was faced with a serious problem in 1982. Its drug Tylenol, then an OTC drug (Over The Counter drug, meaning one that did not require a medical prescription for purchase) used to relieve pain and fever, was caught in a bad controversy when seven people died after consuming the drug. The deaths were due to addition of potassium cyanide, a malicious act that had happened outside the company’s production plants and effectively out of its sphere of control.

J&J’s response is considered a classical example of what should be done and how a powerful and positive PR can go way beyond damage control. Putting the safety of customers first, J&J quickly recalled about 31 million bottles of Tylenol, worth over $300 million. Statements reassuring the common people were issued. When the drug was reintroduced, it was presented in tamper-proof packing. It answered tough questions that were raised from various quarters.

The J&J PR took a stand befitting a leader – instead of going on the defensive, it accepted responsibility, drew as much learning from the incident as possible, clearly put the safety of customers ahead of costs, entered into better engagement with media and customers and patiently responded to over 2,500 calls. All this positive PR helped J&J reach its way back to dominating the market.

When a similar incident repeated itself four years later, J&J took a more far-reaching decision: It announced no Johnson & Johnson drug would be OTC anymore, since it was not possible to fully assure customer safety. Media lauded the decision and the brand established itself firmly in the minds of customers as a safe, customer-first company.

A few more examples

Pepsi and Coke displayed inadequate PR skills in India while handling some reports that showed their products contained harmful levels of pesticides.

Odwalla juices USA were found to have been contaminated by E Coli. Odwalla responded swiftly by altering their production processes that drastically lowered the chances of contamination.

Texaco USA was charged with racial discrimination by a handful of its African-American employees. The oil company swung into action by offering apology, suspension of erring employees and hiring an African-American owned agency for damage control.

Cadbury’s India was charged with selling chocolates that contained harmful chemicals. Cadbury’s handling of the crises was not great, and it took a long time for the brand to bounce back. 

The Tatas could have better handled the situation when Cyrus Mistry was removed from the Tata’s board of directors.

Mel’s diner: An unusual case

Once, when the streets of Los Angeles were flooded due to a burst pipe, a local restaurant Mel’s Diner realized it was not possible to conduct business since customers wouldn’t be able to walk in. It came up with a brilliant idea.

To all the workers who came in to repair the broken pipeline, Mel’s served free hamburgers. Workers appreciated the kind gesture. Soon, the word spread and TV crews got the news. They video-recorded the act and by evening the same day, thousands of viewers watched news and interpreted this gesture as one of positively responsible corporate citizenship. By capitalizing upon an unexpected and unrelated crisis, Mel’s strengthened its corporate image and brand.

Concluding remarks

Absence of accurate and timely information leads people to react irrationally and in an exasperated manner. They even fall prey to rumors. That’s why it’s important for organizations to respond appropriately and swiftly.

Organizations must begin by explaining the situation clearly. Next they must answer questions from media, customers and all other stake-holders, explaining how the situation is likely to affect each of them and find the best way out. Most importantly, the organization (actually the PR department and / or the spokespersons) must appear fully in control, efficient and honest in sharing information in a way that minimizes the damage, prevent any further panic or erode shareholder value.

The key takeaway is what the organization can learn from it and how it can prevent such crises in future. When handled intelligently, organizations can emerge stronger, more reliable and more alert. And that’s a mighty achievement for PR.

Deepak Bhatt is a communication, media engagement and publications professional. Currently he manages communication at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), one of Asia’s finest B-schools.

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