and Ideas for Further Study By Doug Boyd
Whether the audience lives in the four walls of a single home or spans the globe, when bad news strikes, to someone falls the duty of telling it. Most crises are local and never face intense, widespread public scrutiny. Others however, such as plane crashes, quickly enter the national or world spotlight then evolve on news programs, talk shows, the Internet, in magazine articles, and the like. This paper examines some well-known crises, experts’ opinions about how those crises were managed, and suggestions on how those crises could have been better handled.
Recent discussions of crisis management
Nat Read makes an eye-opening observation: “Crisis communication among American companies has taken a sudden turn. Today, more and more crises are the result of internal mismanagement rather than external accidents. The Institute of Crisis Management ... analyzed 31,560 business stories and in 1991 found news reports of 5,708 crises caused by mismanagement compared with only 4,565 accounts of ‘accidental’ crises. This finding represented a reversal of the pattern of 1989, when ‘accidental’ crises outnumbered managerial crises, 6,466 to 5,384” (“Sears PR Debacle” S1). Those are striking figures. Communication during crisis, which I will refer to as crisis management, becomes increasingly important as the multitude of media outlets--from traditional print and broadcast media to the Internet--continues to grow. As one expert, an airline industry spokesman, said: “With television beaming around the world, you can lose the battle for public opinion in two hours. It’s essential to act quickly” (“How Florida Crash” S1). Unfortunately, all crises have different parameters.
Current and past research in crisis management has followed a trend. One type of research looks at about how not to handle public relations during times of disaster, such as the Exxon Valdez spill in 1987. Another type praises prompt, well-thought-out crisis-management efforts, such as the Tylenol scare of 1982. Many articles also contain a list of crisis-management steps, such as develop a crisis management plan, get top management to the crisis site to respond as quickly as possible, show sincere compassion for any people injured or killed during the crisis event, and so on. Coincidentally, that is one of the good things about crisis-management research: The studies typically refer to concrete examples of how someone else’s approach did or did not work. History often holds valuable lessons, and crisis management has a tangible, almost empirical history.
Here is a typical crisis situation: Company A produces a product. One day or over time, users of that product become ill or injured by a perceived or actual defect in the product. Those users’ stories make headlines and nightly newscasts, and Company A must respond in some way. At this point, differences begin to crop up. When the Tylenol scare broke out in 1982, Johnson & Johnson responded immediately with compassion for those killed from cyanide-laced Tylenol and dedicated itself to finding out how cyanide got into its product and making sure that problem never happened again. Tylenol was soon found not to be defective but to have been tampered with, on a very small scale, by a malevolent individual who inserted cyanide into Tylenol containers before they were distributed and sold. Using successful crisis management practices, Johnson & Johnson acted quickly and decisively, and proved that its product was safe (“How Florida Crash” S1). Product-tampering regulations came about as a result.
In an alternative example, the Exxon Corporation largely failed in its crisis management in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. The company was slow to respond, blamed others for the spill and subsequent slow cleanup, then lowered its goals from restoring Prince William Sound to a pristine condition to doing the best cleanup possible under reasonable technological and financial considerations--according to its own reasoning. Whereas Johnson & Johnson’s response quickly reassured the public, Exxon reacted defensively, blamed others, and appeared to minimize the gravity of the spill.
Two plane crashes, two crisis-management approaches
Practical experience, however, shows that sometimes not even the right combination of personality and preparation can avert bad press after a disaster. Such a situation occurred on May 12, 1996, when ValuJet Flight 592 plunged into the Florida Everglades, sinking into the muck and taking all 110 people aboard with it. The cause was later determined to be oxygen generators that were improperly loaded into the cargo hold, caught fire, and suffocated the flight crew. The first sign company spokeswoman Marcia Scott got--a beep on her pager with a ValuJet telephone number followed by “911,” which signaled a company emergency--shows that the young airline had a solid crisis-management plan in place. The three-pronged strategy called for the company to show compassion for the victims, take responsibility for the crash, and demonstrate that the airline has learned from the crisis. The plan mirrored Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 plan, and ValuJet President Lewis Jordan garnered praise for his forthrightness in the wake of the crash.
Nevertheless, complicating factors made the tragedy even more difficult. The daily images of rescuers and recovery experts working in the alligator-laden marsh, the slow pace of the recovery efforts, questions about the airline’s maintenance records, and its oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration all made the crash a near-nightly feature on the network news. Even the process of deciphering the flight recorders, their quality poor after being submerged in the swamp, meant the discovery of the fire in the cockpit took days to unfold (“How Florida Crash” S1). After the crash, the FAA began a full review of the airline, forcing it to interrupt service for several weeks. Business resumed with a just a few routes and daily flights, and ValuJet later merged with Florida-based AirTran Airways, moved its headquarters to Orlando, Fla., and now operates under the AirTran Airlines name.
Eerily similar in many respects was the crash of TWA Flight 800 in the Atlantic Ocean minutes after taking off from JFK International Airport on July 17, 1996--just weeks after the ValuJet crash. The National Transportation Safety Board has all but concluded that the 747 was downed by an unintended electrical spark or overheating in its center fuel tank, causing fuel vapors to explode and rip the plane apart. But conspiracy theorists trotted out so-called evidence for more than a year declaring the jumbo jet was the victim of a missile mistakenly fired by the U.S. military. Others postulated that a meteorite struck the plane, but an expert testified that the chance of that was one in every 59,000 to 77,000 years (CNN Interactive). Regardless of the cause, on the night of crash, TWA hurt itself by committing many of the mistakes ValuJet so deftly avoided. First, TWA chief executive officer Jeffrey Erickson and public relations executive Mark Abels were in London when the crash occurred shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (approximately 1 a.m. London time). Many communications professionals have asked why Erickson did not hold a satellite news conference from London rather than waiting until he returned to New York. The most important thing in an airline crisis is for the airline to reassure the public, to show that it knows what it is doing, to show that it is compassionate, and to show that it plans to do its utmost to get to the bottom of the disaster (Elsasser 2).
Many factors worked against TWA. First was the fact that the plane crashed into the ocean after dark, making any immediate recovery of bodies or critical aircraft parts nearly impossible. Secondly, the excellent performance of the 747 during its nearly three decades of service (None had ever before crashed due to mechanical failure.) combined with the fiery nature of the TWA crash led many to guess that a terrorist act had downed the plane. Thirdly, New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani spent the night at JFK and blasted TWA for its “abysmal and horrible” performance in notifying victims’ relatives. Many public relations professionals have opinions on how TWA handled this crash, and many of those feel the airline broke every basic crisis-management rule. One expert, after watching news bulletins, reportedly went so far as to fax the airline a four-point primer on how to handle the crisis (Elsasser 1).
Published suggestions for improving crisis management
Inherent in crises is the possibility of huge costs to recover the event followed by the possibility of crippling litigation afterward. Attorneys, therefore, may often advise their clients to eschew certain strategies for dealing with crises in order to avoid litigation or, one may assume, criminal charges. Also, image restoration for a person or entity is usually needed when the accused is held responsible for an action that is considered offensive (Benoit 178).
Many of these events occurred in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez incident, in which eleven million gallons of oil were spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska, when the Valdez ran aground. First, Exxon and the consortium behind the Alaskan pipeline, Aleyska, had underestimated the likelihood of a spill and overestimated their response capabilities (Tyler 153). Not only was Aleyska unable to handle even a relatively small spill, the Valdez spill was far worse than anything the consortium had imagined. Also, Exxon’s slow response to the spill and the invisibility of company leadership cost Exxon the chance to grab early control of the situation. Thus, by sending his corporals instead of going to Alaska himself, Exxon Chairman L.G. Rawl gave away his role as a leader and afforded others the opportunity to define the situation and his response. To make matters worse, Exxon made statements which may have been prudent for legal or financial reasons but nevertheless portrayed the company as cold, calculating, and ruthless. Lastly, Exxon officials appeared to be mean, snapping at reporters, fishermen, and others. (Tyler 163).
Similarly, a study of NASA’s handling of the Hubble Space Telescope’s problem mirror shows the space agency made some of the same mistakes Exxon made in Valdez. Just as the oil giant overestimated how well it could clean the water and beaches, NASA oversold Hubble’s ability to take breathtaking photographs and failed to mention its other skills, such as spectroscopy. Also like Exxon, NASA lacked a public relations strategy to sell the qualities of the Hubble as well as deal with any possible shortcomings. When, after NASA’s boasts of pretty pictures, Hubble proved to have fuzzy vision, public confidence in the agency was nearly dashed (Kauffman 4).
In another NASA crisis, the Challenger disaster, other problems hurt the space agency’s ability to prevent mistakes and effectively deal with them when they occurred. Under public and Congressional pressure for more numerous and more timely shuttle launches, NASA switched its standard plan of assuming a launch will not take place and requiring engineers to prove that all is safe to a system where administrators assumed a launch would occur and required engineers to prove it was not safe. Also, the event that caused the shuttle explosion--leaky booster rocket O-rings--had changed from being an anomaly to being an acceptable risk (Dombrowski 147). Overly polite conversation, which clouded the launch risks in ambiguity, also contributed to the disaster. Again, due to the pressure to launch, none of those involved wanted to damage another’s credibility or job security by forcefully arguing against a launch (Moore 288). A disturbing picture emerges of an agency which was paralyzed when it came to making tough, unpopular decisions. This picture clearly expresses the importance of having a sound crisis strategy to predict when problems may arise and manage them when they do. To its credit, NASA did have a solid plan for dealing with this crisis. Agency leaders expressed remorse for the victims and their families, pledged to determine the cause, and then to enact procedures to make sure the mistake never happened again. Thus, while NASA communication contributed largely to the explosion, its communication after the explosion also showed compassion and responsibility afterward.
Benoit offers these suggestions for effective crisis management. Though they are general, they do serve as a good starting point and help pave the way to the perception of ethical behavior (182-183):
Prepare a crisis contingency plan to serve as a guideline for dealing with crises, and make the plan flexible enough to be modified for several situations.
Analyze the crisis and accusations, and tailor the response to the offense.
Identify the relevant audience, and focus the response toward that group.
Know how and when to repair a tarnished image, realizing not all accusations need a response, and unfavorable situations can sometimes be redefined in more favorable terms. Sometimes, however, a crisis will arise suddenly, or the person who is tapped to be spokesman will develop stage fright and cannot remember what the plan is. In such cases, having a SOCO, or single overriding communications objective helps. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims families,” would be a good one in cases where people have been injured or killed. Write the SOCO on an index card. Spokesmen may also write one to three communication points to make, in order of importance. A quick glance at the card should not disrupt the flow of information and will serve as a confidence-bolstering aid (Howard).
Further refinement of crisis management suggestions
Responding well to crises takes preparation. The crisis contingency plan should specify who is the main spokesman for the organization, preferably the chief executive officer or whoever is the person in charge of the organization. The plan should be in the form of a flow chart so crisis managers can quickly make decisions on second and third spokesmen and procedures should the CEO not be readily available, as was the case with TWA, or more unexpected events arise. The flow chart should continue all the way to the resolution of the crisis, so crisis managers will not get lost along the way, as happened to Exxon.
In addition, the plan should take into account that what are considered pluses in good times--such as ValuJet’s Jordan assembling his own $100 Office Depot desk to save money--can quickly turn into minuses. In this case, the implication was that not only did ValuJet refuse to splurge on executive privileges, but also scrimped on safety and maintenance (“How Florida Crash” S1).
Audience analysis is also critical. TWA could not respond harshly in public and then convince the public to believe it treated the victims’ families with compassion. Unfortunately, TWA officials became short-tempered at times in public, and victims’ families said all along that the airline and the coroner who examined the remains lacked compassion.
The plan should also be carried out by a crisis-management team that directs all parts of the operation, from leading press conferences to snuffing out speculation (Elsasser 5). As an example, shortly after the crash of Flight 592, ValuJet sent its “Go Team” to Miami to handle the crisis (“How Florida Crash” S1).
Benoit, William L. “Image Repair Discourse and Crisis Communication.” Public Relations Review 2 (1997): 177-186.
Botan, Carl. “Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns: The Case for a New Approach to Public Relations.” The Journal of Business Communication 2 (1997): 188-202.
CNN Interactive. “Flight 800 Crash Focus is on Fuel Probes.”