For the past two months, our eyes have been glued to news of the Gulf Coast oil spill. With each day that passes, the oil company is buried deeper in a disaster that will surely be difficult to overcome. According to Maribeth Kuzmeski, what makes the situation worse is how BP has chosen to connect with the media and the public during these critical days—resorting to misleading information, poor communication and neglect to dodge responsibility for the spill.
Bad things can happen to any company—a financial scandal, a contaminated or faulty product, a high-profile lawsuit. What’s essential is how you react and connect with your most important publics. Kuzmeski specializes in helping businesses and individuals create strong business relationships and repair broken ones. She suggests following these steps when faced with a crisis:
- Practice full transparency and full disclosure. Until it makes the decision to lay all the cards on the table after a disaster—to be upfront about its decision-making process and solutions—the company in question is stuck behind a roadblock. It is impossible to begin rebuilding relationships with customers and the public in general if you aren’t being honest and upfront with them about what has happened. As BP has found out, a lack of transparency attracts closer scrutiny and suspicion.
- Get out in front of the disaster. There is no better example of this than Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol. After several people died from taking cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol in 1982, Johnson & Johnson immediately accepted responsibility, then promptly recalled all Tylenol products (even though it likely was an isolated incident) and developed a tamperproof seal. These actions showed that they were doing everything in their power to protect the public and fix the problem. “When you get in front of a problem, it doesn’t make the problem go away, but at least it shows people that you are doing something about it and that you care,” says Kuzmeski. “Caring is a key point of connection. Your public has to see that you care enough about them to forget your own company’s well-being for the moment.”
- Step up and take responsibility. An important part of reconnecting after a disaster is accepting responsibility. J&J’s quick acceptance of responsibility is one reason the company was able to recover so handily after the Tylenol scare. Unfortunately, in the case of the BP spill, the company has only reluctantly owned up to what happened. “Until someone takes responsibility for the disaster, the public doesn’t feel like there is anyone fully in charge of fixing the problem,” Kuzmeski observes.
- Remember quantity and quality of communication count. Any company facing a crisis must stay in front of the public and keep them constantly informed. “When there is a lack of sufficient communication, the result is anger,” says Kuzmeski. “And when you are dealing with a disaster, anger is no good. The anger causes a major roadblock and makes it difficult to connect.”
- Don’t shy away from tough questions. There is nothing easy about reconnecting after a disaster. Regardless of the situation, there will always be tons of difficult questions that people want answered. Make sure you’re prepared to answer them.
- Be authentic—but think before you speak. When a disaster strikes, too often companies will go to the script. That’s understandable, because you naturally want your communication to be well-thought-out. But it’s important to understand that your communication also has to be authentic. Remember, people connect with other people—not with scripts. So be sure to take a break from the “official” party line from time to time and let your human side show. But choose your words very carefully.
- Couple your communication with action. You can be providing people with the best communication possible, but if you aren’t also backing up that communication with action, you won’t get anywhere. “Johnson & Johnson serves as another good example here,” says Kuzmeski. “After the Tylenol scare, they communicated to the public that they were taking responsibility for what happened. Then they recalled their Tylenol products even though it was a huge cost to the company.”
- Make the public part of the process. A way to connect with people is to involve them in the process. When your company is dealing with a disaster, you must assess who you should be collaborating with, who can help you and how they can help. When you do so, it shows people that you are working toward solutions, and they become a little army on your side. “When I consult with companies, I make sure that all of the decision makers and managers are involved in what is going on,” says Kuzmeski. “I want everyone in the room together collaborating, because when someone is left out and new initiatives are implemented, they feel like they are being given directives. But if they feel like they have been made a part of the process, then they make sure they are part of the solution.”
Maribeth Kuzmeski is the author of four books, including The Connectors: How the World’s Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life (Wiley, 2009). She is the founder of Red Zone Marketing, which advises Fortune 500 firms on strategic marketing planning and business growth.
For more advice on crisis management, check out these articles: