Crisis Recovery: Advice from the Experts

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by Ann Andrews Morris


Corporate crises seem to happen daily around the world. Some are preventable. Some are avoidable. Some cannot be predicted with even the most careful planning and preparation. Brands can be made or destroyed when an organization faces a crisis. How a crisis is handled and the steps taken to recover are critical in regaining and growing the trust of key stakeholders.

I asked leading experts in strategic and crisis communication to give their advice on best practices to follow and pitfalls to avoid when recovering from a crisis. Experts include: Heather Jameson, vice president of communications for health research nonprofit Research!America, Virgil Scudder, president of media relations firm Virgil Scudder and Associates, and Phil Zepeda, senior vice president of the hunger-relief nonprofit Feeding America.

What are the first steps a company should take to recover from a crisis?

Heather Jameson: Assess what went wrong: Be honest in evaluating what the company could have done better and be tough in outlining potential scenarios, so you’re prepared if circumstances deteriorate. Bring together top management, PR, legal, sales, marketing, HR, regulatory, and other key areas in your organization to discuss the concerns and considerations that each will bring to the table. Draft a coordinated action plan with coordinated messages.

Virgil Scudder: Make a thorough assessment of the mistakes made and damage done during the crisis, then come up with a plan to rectify each. Admit mistakes and outline the steps planned to avoid a repetition. Identify key constituencies that will need to be addressed (customers, employees, communities, etc.) and the best way to reach them.

Phil Zepeda: The most important rule, above anything else, is to remain honest and straightforward. Speak clearly, without industry jargon, and explain what has happened and what you are doing to regain the public’s trust.
What is the role of PR during the recovery stage?

VS: Involvement of the public relations team is absolutely critical. People make decisions based on perceptions. PR must help establish the company’s reputation as reliable, responsible and trustworthy.

PZ: PR needs to be at the leadership table of the organization sharing potential consequences of internal and external scenarios. For pressing questions, PR needs to push for answers that are clear, honest and responsible.

What are some common mistakes to avoid?

VS: Our mantra is never lie, deceive or mislead. BP managed to do at least two of the three on many occasions in its response to the oil spill. The Japanese government is making some of the same mistakes today following the earthquake and tsunami in downplaying the damage from the nuclear crisis, failing to keep the public fully and honestly informed, and refusing to admit error or accept blame. They will suffer a loss of trust for many years to come as a result.

PZ: Remember that honoring the spirit of transparency shouldn’t mean making your organization “naked.” Be thoughtful about what you’re sharing. There is no need to tell everything.

How do social media help or hinder the recovery process?

HJ: Social media can fan the flames of a crisis and speed up the spread of rumors and inaccuracies. However, by bringing those rumors to light quickly, the company can often respond to them more quickly. Social media also offer channels to quickly reach those who follow your organization most closely.

VS: Social media must be a part of a company’s planning and thinking before, during and after a crisis. Social media are essential to the recovery process, but it would be a mistake to allow focus on these channels to result in neglect of mainstream media or personal communication with key constituents. The bottom-line message through all media and to all constituencies must be: “This company cares.”

How do you recommend PR professionals work with executives to mitigate the extent of the crisis?

HJ: Not every crisis warrants an active communication plan. Sometimes the best strategy is being prepared and implementing only if needed.

For situations that do call for an active PR role, be prepared with a rationale for the messages and strategies you recommend—the expected benefits of your strategies and the likely consequences of minimizing the role of communications. Come prepared with this up front. In the fast-moving time frame of a crisis response, you may not have a second chance to make your case later.
PZ: In your conversations with your leadership team, play out what public reaction might be to different responses from the company. While they may not respond to a PR plan to help handle your recovery, they will certainly respond to a decline in the organization’s bottom line if trust is compromised.

Do you have any examples of companies or organizations that have or have not recovered well from a crisis?

HJ: A recent bad example is TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the company that operates the Japanese nuclear plant that was so severely damaged in the earthquake and tsunami. They’ve seemingly withheld information and have downplayed the severity of the crisis and risk to the surrounding area.

VS: The most-cited good example is Johnson & Johnson and its handling of the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. Six months after the crisis Johnson & Johnson was selling more Tylenol than ever. BP and Toyota are poster children of bad handling of a crisis, but you can also add Johnson & Johnson to this list now, due to its inept and deceptive handling of its product defects and recalls in the past year.

PZ: While I was working at the Red Cross in the weeks and months after the September 11th attacks, public trust was deteriorating after it was widely suggested that the organization was slow to respond to the crisis. Through it all, the Red Cross maintained its commitment to help families recover from the tragedy, while continuing to respond to other disasters throughout the country. The Red Cross admitted its mistakes and detailed its road map to making things right. Your No. 1 commitment must be to maintain public trust.

Ann Andrews Morris is vice president for communications and outreach at World Food Program USA. Most recently, she ran AndMore Communications, a Washington, D.C. based firm specializing in nonprofit strategic communications, public relations and crisis communication.

Published in International Association of Business Communicators’ CW Magazine.