When it comes to business, public relations are critical. If the public doesn’t look too fondly on you, you’re probably on the downswing– unless you do something about it.
Sometimes, though, companies get slammed with PR crises that threaten to steamroll the entire business straight into bankruptcy (or, at the very least, put a very large and permanent dent in it). The current Facebook scandal with Cambridge Analytica is a textbook example.
Unfortunately, more often than not, businesses don’t handle these moments of crisis very well. Leadership doesn’t always immediately take damage-control steps, and it doesn’t always focus on sending a message of concern and empathy. As a result, people can quickly lose faith in the brand.
But what happens when a company deals with a PR crisis with transparency and openness? When it expresses a sense of humanity? Sometimes, we can be pleasantly surprised.
PR is premised on truth, trust, and transparency.
– Richard Edelman
There have been a lot of big PR crises over the past few decades, but only a few companies have dealt with them in a refreshing and inspiring way. We’ve rounded up four great examples of crisis management below.
Editor’s note: Keep in mind that this article is meant to highlight different cases of crisis management, not to convey that the behaviors of the companies mentioned are always exemplary.
1. Apple VS. the U.S. government
The most recent PR crisis on our list, Apple versus the US government, was about as epic as it sounds. However, the entire reason this one worked out for Apple was because Apple didn’t ultimately make it about Apple against the government.
In 2016, based on the Justice Department’s request, a federal judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking an encrypted iPhone that was used by Syed Farook, the perpetrator of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack.
Apple’s response was that, while possible, doing so would open the encryption-cracking software to vulnerability and potential hackings, in addition to creating a dangerous precedent for tech companies when dealing with government orders.
Apple’s tussle with the FBI ended after weeks of debate, but the fact that the backlash was minimized is remarkable.
So, how did Apple do it? As I mentioned earlier, it didn’t make it about “us versus them” like it could have. Instead, the company immediately opened up to the public about the issue, explaining openly why it was resisting the request.
Apple turned the fight from being about Apple vs. the government to being about Apple and the millions of consumers concerned about their privacy vs. the FBI.
2. Johnson & Johnson’s cyanide capsules
This is one of the most severe PR crises in recent history. In 1982, seven people died after consuming Tylenol capsules that someone had poisoned with cyanide. Unfortunately, the killer was never caught.
Johnson & Johnson, who own Tylenol, responded in a way that put their customer’s safety first and showed compassion over profit. The company immediately pulled a whopping 31 million bottles of Tylenol off the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies throughout the country, and halted all production and advertising until the problem was solved.
They also cooperated fully with the FBI, FDA, and Chicago police department to help find the killer, offering a $100,000 reward.
After the crisis settled, Jonhson & Johnson introduced tamper-resistant packaging to its Tylenol products, ensuring their customer’s safety moving forward in addition to offering country-wide coupons.
3. Odwalla Foods E.coli outbreak
In 1996, Washington state health officials released information linking a recent E.coli outbreak with Odwalla’s apple juice. As a result of the outbreak, one child died and more than sixty people became sick.
So, what did Odwalla do? CEO Stephen Williamson took full blame and not only recalled all Odwalla products that contained juice of any kind– costing the company roughly six-and-a-half million dollars, but also promised to pay all the medical costs of those affected.
As the events unfolded, Odwalla updated the public on a daily basis with press briefings, newspaper ads, and a website where anyone could get the latest information on the issue. The company eventually fixed the contamination issue and further improved its safety standards.
In the end, while Odwalla took a major hit, the company was able to survive, later being purchased by the Coca-Cola company.
Thoughts with all @virgingalactic & Scaled, thanks for all your messages of support. I’m flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team.
– Richard Branson (@richardbranson) tweet on October 31, 2014
Some things need explanation. Some speak for themselves. The tweet above, from Richard Branson himself, is virtually all that needs to be said to explain why this is easily one of the most refreshing and inspiring responses to a PR crisis ever.
In 2014, a Virgin Galactic test flight went horribly wrong, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
Facing a potentially huge PR nightmare, Branson didn’t waste a second before expressing his concern and taking steps to be with his team. He didn’t meet with his executives to figure out how they’d respond to the crisis, he responded to it like a compassionate human being.
Branson went on to write an extended blog post on the event later that day, clarifying the details of what had happened, further cementing his reputation as one of the coolest CEOs ever.