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Examples of how well-managed crisis communication helps your brand shine

Luquire has built quite a reputation over the years for its expertise in crisis management. With a senior team of professionals, many of them former journalists, we’ve developed a knack for knowing how to navigate organizations through sticky situations.

But as part of an integrated marketing agency that spends most of its time building brands, over the years it’s become increasingly clear that good crisis management is about more than just surviving the issue du jour. Properly managed, every crisis can be a branding opportunity, a chance to reinforce the values that connect you with your most important audiences. Below are real-world examples of brand crises and how tactical PR communication helped minimize the subsequent fallout.

Lessons Learned from Starbucks

In April of 2018, Starbucks made national news when workers at one of its Philadelphia-area stores called police demanding the removal of two Black men they claimed were trespassing and creating a disturbance.

The men told officers they were waiting quietly for a friend to join them, and the situation escalated when one of them was denied use of the restroom because he hadn’t purchased anything. They were arrested and released when Starbucks declined to press charges, but the damage was done. The 24-hour news cycle branded the company as racist, and boycotts against the beloved brand were being organized across the country.

Starbucks’ initial response was a tepid statement about its opposition to racial profiling, and it largely fell on deaf ears. That’s when Starbucks executed one of the most tried and true strategies for effective crisis management: get caught doing something good.

On May 29 of that year, the company closed more than 8,000 stores in the U.S. to provide implicit bias training to more than 175,000 employees. The grand gesture, which cost Starbucks untold millions in lost sales that day, sent a powerful message – we are committed to ensuring Starbucks is a place where everyone feels welcome.

This was more than damage control; it was a masterstroke in the art of branding. For a company whose brand position is to be America’s “third place” – other than home and work or school, the place where you feel most comfortable – affirming the welcoming nature of Starbucks was a powerful message delivered in a very compelling fashion.

In the heat of a crisis, most organizations immediately focus their energy on trying to minimize the damage. They follow the classic “3 R’s” formula for effective crisis management:

  • Regret – apologizing for what happened and accepting responsibility.
  • Remedy – expressing how you’re going to fix the problem.
  • Reform – explaining how you’re going to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Starbucks’ bold action could easily fit into the Remedy or Reform category, but in this case it goes even further. Instead of putting out a press release or conducting training behind closed doors, they very publicly held the sessions in the very stores where they hope customers themselves will feel welcome. Brilliant.

Other Great Examples of Smart Crisis Communication

This isn’t an original idea, of course, but it is surprisingly rare. One of the classic case studies in any PR textbook is Johnson & Johnson’s handling of alleged Tylenol tampering in 1982. While police were still piecing together a handful of reported deaths linked to poison-laced Tylenol capsules, the company first suspended production, then issued a total recall of more than 31 million bottles of its products, and just weeks later introduced the tamper-proof package that is now commonplace for all over-the-counter medications.

In taking such aggressive action, Tylenol reassured the public that the health and safety of its customers was its primary concern. Rather than suffering a long-term setback, Tylenol sales rebounded to their pre-crisis levels in less than year.

Preliminary Steps to Creating Your Own Crisis Communication Plan

When clients call us in the early stages of a crisis, the first thing we do is run through our “3 R’s” checklist – how can we quickly express genuine sorrow while demonstrating resolve to make things right and prevent future occurrences? But in doing so, we always take stock of the company’s key brand attributes and look for ways to weave them into their response.

In fact, that work should start long before the TV cameras show up or the bad news breaks on social media. Our crisis preparedness work involves helping clients anticipate potential liabilities and prescribing effective remedies – from message development to the mechanics of how to get the word out to important stakeholders. And we always look for ways to deliver on the brand’s promise through their actions to resolve the situation.

It’s said that people should be judged not by their words, but by their deeds. That’s true of organizations as well, which is why we urge clients to lean into their brand during times of crisis. In simple terms, “Get Caught Doing Something Good.” Be true to who you are, and who you want your customers to see – the result will be effective crisis recovery and lasting brand affinity.

about the author

Barry Finkelstein  Having cut his teeth at such firms as Omnicom’s FleishmanHillard and Publicis’ MSL, Barry has more than 30 years of experience at a broad range of organizations. A graduate of the University of Florida, Barry has served on the Advisory Council for the school’s College of Journalism and Communications, and as a board member of the Georgia, South Carolina, Pittsburgh and Charlotte chapters of the Public Relations Society of America.


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