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 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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Agency PR with Robert Kolt

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Dec 26, 2008 in Internships, PRSSA, Public Relations

Over the next several weeks, I will be posting some content from my previous other PR blog. This was originally posted on March 31, 2008 after the CMU PRSSA 6th Annual Spring Conference
“The Road to Reinvention”

Session 1: “Agency PR” with Robert Kolt

Robert Kolt is CEO and president of Kolt Communications, Inc., a privately owned communications corporation in Okemos, Mich. Kolt is a CMU alumni with an undergraduate degree in broadcast & cinematic arts and journalism. He also holds a graduate degree in communications from MSU.

Kolt said his corporation does a lot of strategic communications. For example, he might do research for a politician and tell them the facts and what they should say. Another example would be interview rehearsals for Consumers Energy’s CEO.

Kolt Communications, Inc. offers media training, including message development strategies, speaking and presentation skills and media interview techniques. He helps stage events that “help make news.” Kolt Communications, Inc. is licensed as a fundraiser as well. Kolt said that fundraising and grant writing are growing areas in the industry.

One past client Kolt talked to students about was a lottery winner who wanted to remain anonymous. He did not want his face shown because he had a criminal record. His company also has staged fires to show crisis communication skills, done ground breakings and has handled a crisis situation with the United Way.

Kolt gave three steps to crisis management:
1. Prevention
2. Detection
3. Extinguishing

He said that many businesses don’t come to him until they need help with step three.

Kolt Communications, Inc. usually takes one or two interns who are paid $10 per hour. He said he looks for a good writer and hard worker with good interpersonal skills.

Kolt said that he does not actively pitch to businesses. Many clients come to him through referrals or he bids on projects. One thing to remember, Kolt said, is “it’s not about you, it’s about your client.”

On starting your own firm, Kolt suggested the following:
1. Create relationships – Never burn any bridge
2. Be honest, knowledgeable, and creative
3. Add value and power to clients
4. Be philanthropic

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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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