How do we define ‘Crisis’? Something that we want to avoid all the time? The lexicon (from wikipedia) suggests a Crisis as any event that is, or expected to lead to, an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community or whole society. Crises are deemed to be negative changes in the security, economic, political, societal or environmental affairs, especially when they occur abruptly, with little or no warning. More loosely, it is a term meaning ‘a testing time’ or an ’emergency event’. Crisis as such has three basic elements which stand as parameters of the testing time: a threat to organization, element of surprise and a very short decision time. And each of these elements involves Communication as a critical tool either to mitigate the criticality of the event or divert the consequences toward a more passive experience. Before we discuss the golden rules for Crisis Communication, it would be ideal to see two globally known cases that will give a glimpse into the trends and approaches they have been handled with. The first case is about Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol of 1982 and the second is the British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The medium of communication in last three decades have seen a sea change, but the urge and dexterity with which both the cases were handled is inspiring.
Deaths due to J&J’s Tylenol: 1982
Tylenol is a spectacular painkiller brand from Johnson & Johnson, which faced a crisis that turned out to be a global case study even after three decades. As per 1980s market data, this globally acclaimed brand contributed to around 18% of Johnson & Johnson’s net earnings. Then what went wrong?
On the morning of 30th September, 1982, the CEO of McNeil (a subsidiary of J&J) received shocking news of seven people who died after consuming the drug blamed to be cyanide laced. This created a nation-wide panic and the company stood on the verge of losing the brand image in no time. Media from various small and big cities thronged with news, speculations and even fancy tales to draw attention. The circumstances that hit the brand can be imagined from the record 1411 telephone calls that Johnson & Johnson received in the first ten days after the incident occurred. How did such a mega brand manage to fight the crisis?
James Burke, the former CEO of the company who faced the adversity is often acclaimed even among communication circles for the way he handled the incident. It was this man’s timely response to the crisis that not only saved millions in the US, but also bringing back the trust and re-establishing the brand for the company and the drug. Burke set up a seven member team to fight the crisis in two distinct phases. The first phase focussed on how to save the customers and the second considering how to save the company and the drug. It’s an incredible strategy that the company took in the nick of time.
From a communication point what the company did is truly commendable. Here is a list of few actions pursued during the course. In the first phase focusing on the customers, the company through media communicated to customers and healthcare professionals without hesitation about discontinuing the brand. The production, supply and advertisements of the Tylenol brand were immediately stopped. A nation-wide recall of around 31 million bottles was undertaken. Established a 1800 hotlines to address customer, media and other queries. In those times let us also know that internet was not in use. In the second phase to save the company and the product, J&J reintroduced the capsules with triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging. The Company also offered to exchange all TYLENOL capsules that had already been purchased for TYLENOL tablets ensuring safety. Alongside the J&J Corporate Affairs team established relationship with Police, FBI and the food and drug administration to narrow down the loss. The marketing team announced for Price off coupons($2.5 off) for every pack of Tylenol. In subsequent months the company adopted a New Pricing Program which turned successful through the offer of a discount as high as 25%. All communication done during the crisis managed well in restoring the confidence. A testament to this is that the market share of TYLENOL which fell down from 37% to 7% after the crisis got restored back to 33% in a span of six months.
BPs Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico: 2010
On April 20 – 2010, an explosion occurred at the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig working on a well for the oil company BP (British Petroleum)one mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the largest accidental oil spill in history. After a series of failed efforts to plug the leak, British Petroleum on July 15 after 86 days could finally ensure that oil was not gushing into the gulf. The well was then plugged with cement, but work proceeded on two relief wells soon that promise the greatest certainty of a permanent fix.
The enormity of the crisis is so huge that it shook the international oil business standards and questioned the safety measures taken by those companies involved globally. Nearly five million barrels of oil gushed from BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico. According to estimates and records by the government, BP’s oil leak crossed and outstripped the estimated 3.3 million barrels spilled into the Bay of Campeche by the Mexican rig in 1979. From BP to the US Government and from media to people around the world had no clue as per what could be the scale of devastation.
The BP oil leak crisis raised questioned on not only safety measures taken up by international oil companies but also the government’s ignorance about measures that can tackle such spills as well as regulations that are not so stringent as such occurrences are few in human history.
The consequences were far impacting lives across the gulf. The marine ecosystem was badly hit by the spill with thousands of species floating dead on the surface. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward during the crisis faced criticism from various circles and had to finally resign from the board. Around $20 Bn was claimed by victims of the spill which were settled by the company. The US President Barak Obama ordered an immediate halt to virtually all the current and new offshore oil drilling activity pending a comprehensive safety review. But as offshore drilling remains a primary source for the US energy needs the criticality involved in introduction of stricter regulations also seemed to be parked for the near future.
The various communications that involved in fighting this recent crisis also draws attention as were effective and efficient as well as stand as learning for every brand no matter what sector they belong to. BP issued a letter to the world with the following introductory lines: “Since the tragic accident on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig first occurred, we have been committed to doing everything possible to stop the flow of oil at the seabed, collect the oil on the surface and keep it away from the shore…
… We will continue to keep everyone fully informed about the events as they unfold. For current information on the spill and response plan, please use the following websites:
To make spill-related claims: (800) 440-0858. www.bp.com/gulfofmexicoresponse, www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com ” Alongside, BP ensured that its employees across the globe do not speak anything other than the official statement sent to them. Across all social media and web platforms BPs message about its seriousness in fighting the crisis was used in great frequency. Within no time, BP decided to provide information regarding the crisis ranging from the intensity of the incident to measures for mitigation across a host of communication vehicles.
Lessons Learnt: The common thread that binds both the cases from a crisis communication perspective are: communicating with public during crisis, honest overview of the crisis to be communicated through various phases to ensure credibility, making public safety company’s number one priority and concern, leadership acted commendably during crisis, involvement of associates across all levels in the company regarding crisis management and judicious use of media vehicles including recent day trends and technologies, can all be very helpful.
Both the companies that we have talked here are global players in their own sectors and have a brand reputation of being mega brands. One of the awareness that need to be instigated across any organization is any Crisis doesn’t approach with a bell in its neck, its instantaneous and hence there is no room for preparation. But as responsible individuals and business players, it is advisable to have a crisis communication plan in practice and ensure channels beforehand that can be leveraged during such occurrences. Even though technologies and communication platforms are much superior during the BP crisis compared to the Tylenol episode, Johnson & Johnson serves as a more successful and admirable story of crisis communication. The intent with which J&J operated is commendable for the reason that corrective measures had a human touch involved.
In the new information environment, the proliferation of new media has strengthened the various approaches of crisis communication. People are on the internet and undoubtedly have access to the voluminous information base at any given point of time through the innumerable contributions made by citizen journalists from all over. Consider the influence of Near Instantaneous Media Cycle in recent years. In Jan 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson River. In that incident, emails, tweets, photos and videos of the incident began filtering through cyberspace 15 minutes before the main-stream media even reported it. Today we have search engines that track and display almost everything about an incident, even the history of the occasion, so it’s ideal to be cautious and honest while making statements disseminate.
As trends speak in the new information environment, Crisis Communication is beyond the control of any individual or organisation, and Crisis Communication managers must accept that nothing can be hidden forever as truth surfaces very fast. Crisis Communication must therefore be honest, open, fast, accurate, broadly communicated through multiple platforms and involving the internet as a medium par excellence considering its speed and reach. The prospect of recovery from any crisis remains dependent upon two key parameters; the intensity of damage done and the attitude to troubleshoot and address the damage.