Crisis Communication 101

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Apr 14, 2009 in Crisis Communication

The chairman and CEO of Mattel, Inc., Robert A. Eckert, speaks at the University of Arizona about his crisis communication with toy recalls in this recorded lecture. I think it gives an interesting view on how companies handle crises.

First of all, skip to 5:12 (unless you want to hear the dean speak and then hear about the speaker’s summer vacation).

Lead paint and powerful magnets are two things that have caused dangerous problems to children in the toy industry.

If you don’t want to watch the entire lecture, below are the subjects and times. If anything, at least watch 29:00 to 33:25 about the lessons Mattel learned about the recall crisis.

  • About the failure of a routine lead paint test and what they did (12:50)
    – Recalled 83 toys
    – Followed by another recall two weeks later
  • Recalled magnet toys that did not meet standards (15:20)
    – Newspaper ads, letter from Eckert to reach publics and video from Eckert
    -The media coverage about the 9 million toy recall (18:40-25:15)
  • Regulators and Legislators (25:16)
    – Public hearing conclusion by Senator Durbin (27:05)
  • Scope of the situation (28:25)
  • Lessons learned (29:00-33:25)
  • Results (33:26)
  • Q&A (35:10)

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Crisis Communication Insights

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Apr 13, 2009 in Crisis Communication

Check out this short video, Corporate Advisory Insight: Crisis Communications, by Thomson Reuters for tips and pointers on handling a crisis.

Here are a few points I learned from Arzu Cevik :

  • Be proactive
    Know how things work within your organization and start building relationships with the media before a crisis hits. Also, have a team of people ready to delegate important tasks to.
  • Know what is going on
    What is actually happening? What can we tell people? How does this affect the public and other stakeholders?
  • Be consistent
    Convey one simple, consistent message and be prepared to answer the tough questions.

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Case Study: Tylenol Poisonings

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Apr 12, 2009 in Crisis Communication

Seven people died in 1982 after taking Tylenol capsules, which had been tampered with and contaminated with cyanide. According to Effective Crisis Management, Tylenol’s market share quickly went from 37 percent to only seven percent.

Johnson & Johnson faced a huge challenge. Not only did the company have to manage the crisis communication of just Tylenol, but also of the entire company’s reputation.

J&J recalled approximately 31 million bottles of Tylenol from across the country and stopped all advertising.

On the first day of the crisis, the Tylenol poisonings were the top story for all three broadcast outlets. By the end of the crisis, there had been more than 100,000 news stories run in newspapers.

According to an analysis on the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Communication Web site, a seven-member team was put together by James Burke, J&J’s chairman. His first focus was to protect the people and his second focus was saving the product. The company also used the media to issue alerts and held several press conferences at the corporate headquarters with a live satellite feed. There also was an 800-number available for consumers.

Some say J&J set a standard for crisis communication when they “assumed responsibility by ensuring public safety first and recalled all of their capsules from the market,” despite the fact that the bottles were tampered with after reaching the shelves.

Tylenol was reintroduced into the market with triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging, offered coupons for the products, created a new discounted pricing program, new advertising campaign and gave more than 2,250 presentations to the medical community.

According to Managing Crises Before They Happen (Mitroff, 2001), J&J actually increased their credibility during the crisis because of the candidness of the executives.

Notre Dame expert Professor Patrick Murphy said J&J set a “gold standard” in regards to business ethics as well because J&J was proactive and transparent.

What I think

Although J&J handled this crisis well, I think it would be a totally different situation if it happened today due to social media and the immediacy of communication.

What I believe was most effective how J&J kept the media informed and was transparent. It also was good to have the strategy team set up, although it would have been better if a team was already planned in case of situations like this.


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The ultimate PRofessional test: Serving as your own crisis communicator (PRofessional Development Week)

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Mar 16, 2009 in Career, PRofessional Development Week, Public Relations

This is the last post for the PRofessional Development Week series.

This is a guest post by Lindsay Allen, who has worked in Central Michigan University’s Office of Public Relations and Marketing since 2002; she began as a PR writer and has been an assistant director of media relations since 2005. Due to reorganization, she will be laid off beginning May 1 and is in the midst of her first-ever comprehensive job search. Have a job lead or a freelance need? Send Lindsay an e-mail.

In your PR career, you will face crisis communication situations; they come with the territory. While you may be comfortable with and well versed in handling your clients’ crises, there is one crisis for which no PR pro is truly prepared …

When you find out you’re being laid off, the crisis is your own, and you suddenly are both the client and the crisis communicator; it will test your skills and your character more than any other situation you’ll face in your career.

After almost seven years at my job, including nearly four in my current position, I received notice about a week ago that my position and two others in my office will cease to exist in less than six weeks. I’m being laid off.

My initial reaction? Of course, I couldn’t help but tear up as the news was delivered to me. And as soon as I was alone in my office with the door closed, I allowed the emotions to escape before inviting a couple of my closest colleagues in to share a hug and a cry.

Everyone — even a PR pro — deserves some time for grief and emotion upon receiving news of an impending layoff, but it can’t last long, because you need to shift into crisis communicator mode. You have clients to inform, projects to wrap up, colleagues to train and transition, and a job search to conduct. In my case, I received nearly two months’ notice, and I’ve vowed to spend that time being positive and working diligently to serve my clients.

But before you start making those phone calls and tackling everything else, there is something you should do. Taking a cue from one of my clients, the brilliant and positive Sherene McHenry — who had spoken of the value of an “I’m thankful for …” list as a strategy for curbing complaining in my first-ever Wall Street Journal placement, which was published just two days before my layoff notification — I sat down and realistically thought about what I am grateful for, even under less-than-ideal circumstances. My list:

– A supportive family that believes in me and is going to be there for me no matter what happens

– Colleagues and friends who I felt comfortable calling upon for support when I needed it most and who value me as a professional and personal resource and problem solver

– Awesome clients who appreciate my skills and think highly of me as a person and a professional

– A large personal and professional network, both in person and online

– A reputation as a detail-oriented “utility player” and strong writer with diverse skills and education

– Experience working directly with the top executive of an organization and handling sensitive, confidential information with integrity

It’s amazing just how much the act of making this list will affect your outlook and attitude. Because creating my list reminded me that I have so much to be grateful for, I’ve felt confident and optimistic as I’ve shared the news regarding my situation.

And you know what? There’s no substitute for being sincere and positive, which I’ve discovered as my clients and colleagues praise my attitude and offer to serve as references and write letters of recommendation, offer to call up alumni from their departments to seek job opportunities for me and watch for job postings that might interest me, tell me how much I’ll be missed, and in some cases even admit that I’m handling this better than they think they could.

These conversations also have led to lots of very specific, very positive feedback from the clients I have served over the years … and even from journalists with whom I’ve worked! Pay attention during these conversations; you’ll learn new ways to present your strengths to prospective employers, and you may even learn about strengths you might not have realized others saw in you all along.

The ability to find positives in what in many ways is a negative experience, including seeing it as an opportunity rather than an ending; the ability to sincerely communicate positively about what has transpired and about your outlook for the future instead of being angry, bitter and/or mopey; and refusing to let your final days or weeks on the job be a “lame duck” session are all essential if you are to succeed as a crisis communicator during your time of turmoil.

The bottom line: You owe it to yourself to handle your own crisis with the same grace, honesty and dedication with which you’ve always approached your clients’ crises; you are the client now.

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Three points on using an apology as a crisis communication tool

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Feb 9, 2009 in Crisis Communication, Public Relations

This is a post from my crisis communications blog.

I just came across “Ask the Professor: Sorry! An apology as a strategic PR tool” in Public Relations Tactics (12/2007) by John Guiniven, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA.

Here are three key points I picked up from the article:

  • Relationships are important and sometimes an apology is the best way to get it back on track.
  • The legal department might say no. Sometimes you should listen to them, but make sure they can justify why you shouldn’t apologize.
  • Don’t just say, “We were wrong and we’re sorry.” Someone needs to take responsibility, tell them how the problem will be fixed and why it won’t happen again.

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Crisis in the News: Facebook status gets public school employee fired

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Feb 6, 2009 in Crisis Communication

This is a post from my crisis communication blog.

Crisis in the News
Facebook status gets public school employee fired

What’s in the news

What you say isn’t as private as it used to be, especially with the use of social media.

In December, Morgan Wyhowski updated her Facebook status to say: “Morgan wants to kill her ninth grade flute player who stole the school’s $900 dollar piccolo, and is denying it.”

Wyhowski, the band director for grades six through 12, resigned from Bangor Public Schools after being placed on administrative leave. Criminal charges are not being pursued.

The police chief said it was not an actual threat.

See the entire story here: Bangor band director resigns after posting message on Facebook page she wanted to ‘kill’ student

Crisis communication perspective

Wyhowski, who is 23 according to Wood TV 8, resigned from Bangor Public Schools. This was probably best route for both her and the schools because:

  • It stopped the situation from becoming a crisis
  • It avoided them having to terminate a teacher
  • She will likely be able to find another job
  • The crisis will likely evaporate because parents won’t be arguing that the teacher should leave

Millenials, like Wyhowski, use social media to communicate with friends. I’m sure Wyhowski did not expect that anyone, other than friends, would see her post. For this generation, posting a Facebook status in an everyday activity.

Unfortunately, school employees getting fired due to their Facebook postings isn’t unusual. One teacher faced termination after posting “teaching in the most ghetto school in Charlotte.” The Washington Post reported on several teachers who had derogatory and inappropriate things posted on the MySpace, Facebook and YouTube accounts.

The best route for schools and other employers to go in the future is the provide warnings to all employees about what is and isn’t appropriate. It might also be suggested that employees place all of their social networks to a private setting if they might post something inappropriate.

Perhaps there should be a “social media” section in the employee handbook. Some argue that workplace life and social life are two separate places, but even outside of work an employee is a representative of their employer.

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The Motrin Moms – A Case Study

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Jan 30, 2009 in Case Study, Crisis Communication, Public Relations

This is a recent post from my crisis communication blog.

Motrin Moms
Case Study

Crisis Description

In September, Motrin launched a new ad campaign online and in magazines. The ad, which you can see above, focuses on how wearing a baby can give you a backache. It also gives the impression that baby slings are worn as a fashion statement.

After the ad aired, there was an online explosion of negative PR. One story in USA Today said it perfectly: “Offended moms get tweet revenge over Motrin ads.” The controversy also was one of Advertising Age’s Stories of the Year.

Jessica Gottlieb posted her response to the ad on Twitter, a popular micro-blogging platform. A Twitter hashtag, #MotrinMoms, began to be used when other moms joined the conversation.

The viral controversy spread throughout the various social media outlets. Women, like this one, posted their response on YouTube. There are currently more than 1,300 members of the Facebook group boyotting Motrin.

A graph of the viral activity is available here.

The ad agency wasn’t really aware of what was going on at first, according to Joyce Schwarz.

Social Media Communication

This crisis is a great lesson in how quickly things can go viral through social media. Social media offers the opportunity to engage and enter in a dialogue with an audience. You can see a graph of the viral activity here.

With the rise of social media, companies need to begin to at least track what is being said on blogs, Twitter and other media. They also should consider taking part in social media in order to build relationships with their audiences.

Shannon Paul, who works in new media communications, said in a blog post, “At some point, merely listening won’t be enough. More brands, especially big brands, will either need to learn to engage in social media culture at all levels, or enlist the help of social media natives to carry the message to the community.”

Crisis Communication

The apology below (from the Mom 101 blog) was sent to some of the bloggers who protested the campaign.

I am the Vice President of Marketing for McNeil Consumer Healthcare. I have responsibility for the Motrin Brand, and am responding to concerns about recent advertising on our website. I am, myself, a mom of 3 daughters.

We certainly did not mean to offend moms through our advertising. Instead, we had intended to demonstrate genuine sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their babies. We believe deeply that moms know best and we sincerely apologize for disappointing you. Please know that we take your feedback seriously and will take swift action with regard to this ad. We are in process of removing it from our website. It will take longer, unfortunately, for it to be removed from magazine print as it is currently on newstands and in distribution.

This apology was on Motrin’s Web site (found at this blog):

With regard to the recent Motrin advertisement, we have heard you.

On behalf of McNeil Consumer Healthcare and all of us who work on the Motrin Brand, please accept our sincere apology.

We have heard your complaints about the ad that was featured on our website. We are parents ourselves and take feedback from moms very seriously.

We are in the process of removing this ad from all media. It will, unfortunately, take a bit of time to remove it from our magazine advertising, as it is on newsstands and in distribution.

Thank you for your feedback. Its very important to us.”

Kathy Widmer
Vice President of Marketing
McNeil Consumer Healthcare

Seth Godin said that the apology sounded as if it was put together by a committee. Blueprint Creative Group said there was a need for a more sincere statement.

Advertising Age’s Tom Martin said Motrin may have overreacted. By simply “shutting down,” Motrin missed out on an opportunity to engage in a conversation with its consumers. According to Wired, only about 1,000 Twitter users responded, out of an estimated 3 million users.

Comparing to Other Situations

In crisis communication, the apology to an audience is very important. It gives the company an opportunity to acknowledge the problem and inform the audience of how the problem will be fixed. Motrin might have looked to other controversial crises for ideas.

In a 2007 crisis, JetBlue’s CEO gave an unscripted apology after its crisis (Public Relations Strategist, 2007).

Motrin’s vice president of marketing was the one to apologize in this situation, which was appropriate since it was an ad campaign controversy. But, it also might have helped if the CEO was more involved.

In the Rutgers University crisis, President Francis Lawrence made an apology in a statement to the press, then in 48,000 letters to the community and also in person at campus meetings. He also focused on open meetings with his constituents (Public Relations Strategist, 1995).

But, if Motrin had done more than apologize online (for example, if they had done a live press conference), more attention would have been drawn to the ad. This would have increased awareness of the problem and may have caused more of a problem.

Motrin did keep the apology short and did not try to justify their actions. Motrin also stated what was to be done to correct the situation, which is another important factor in crisis communication and apologies.

What could have been done differently

One problem was the slowness of updating a Web site.

“If your site has to be taken down in order to respond to a crisis, re-design it so that it can be updated quickly and easily without having to throw your organization and agencies into a panic,” said David Armano on Logic + Emotion.

I think that having an established social media presence also would have been immensely helpful for Motrin.

Blueprint Creative Group said in a post that you need to monitor more than just traditional media. Tracking social media conversations about your company is very important. Google Alerts and Twitter Alerts are easy ways to this.

If I were in Motrin’s PR department, I would suggest starting a parenting blog sponsored by Motrin. The blog wouldn’t write about Motrin, but focus more on useful parenting tips and maybe feature some of the more prominent “mommy bloggers.”

After establishing a blog presence, Motrin could expand its audience with micro parenting tips and ideas through Twitter. A credible Twitter account would have assisted in a more immediate response to the tweets about the ad campaign.

The blog also would have a secondary purpose: giving Motrin access to its target audience. Motrin would have the opportunity to feel out ad campaigns before launching them.

For example, Motrin could have found out what mothers think about baby slings if they had been using social media. Motrin would have then realized the ad campaign was off target if they had been utilizing a social media community through a blog or Twitter account.

Sandra Fathi, president of Affect Strategies and chair of the New Media and Technology Committee of PRSA’s New York Chapter, said Twitter can be used to foster customer loyalty (Public Relations Tactics, 2008).

“Companies can search tweets from their customers to see what questions and critiques they may have,” Fathi said.

With reputation management, “companies can search tweets from their customers to see what questions and critiques they may have,” (Fathi, 2008).

In regards to trends and news, Twitter is “a great place to listen to chatter in the market and follow key influencers to learn what they are discovering on a daily basis,” (Fathi).

If Motrin had kept its eye on social media before, the company may have realized the negative feedback before it turned into a crisis.


News Sources:

Industry Sources:

Blog Sources:

Print Sources:

Fathi, Sandra. (Oct. 2008). “From generating awareness to managing reputations: Why your company needs to Twitter.” Public Relations Tactics.

Langley, James M. (Winter 1995). Vol 1, No 4. “Lessons learned from Rutgers’ racial ruckus.” Public Relations Strategist.

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Crisis Communication

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Sep 2, 2008 in Crisis Communication

Check my blog regularly to read my posts on crisis communication. I am doing an independent study on it this semester. If you only want to read my crisis communication posts, click on the category that says “crisis communication.”

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