There Are No Crisis Communications Rules

There was an article that’s been sitting in my queue for a while now about the so-called “rules” of crisis communications. Gerald Baron’s latest post on Taco Bell’s recent troubles has caused me to resurrect this post and confirm that my original feelings were correct.

An article from March in The Globe and Mail’s The Manager blog relayed an article from the Harvard Business Review that examined Apple’s so-called AntennaGate. You remember AntennaGate, right? After the release of the iPhone 4, there were complaints from across the country that if you held the phone just so, one’s connection to the network would be significantly degraded. The media, at the time, was full of stories about refunds and recalls and free cases and Apple being in turmoil. Less than a month after the launch, Apple held a press conference to address the situation.

Crisis communications experts around the globe all finished watching/reading/hearing about the press conference with their jaws on the floor. The response broke every one of their sacred rules for how to address calls for one’s company’s head. Within weeks, the issue was gone. Not in the media, not online, nowhere in any force.

Most PR folks were quickly engrossed in the next meltdown and moved on. (Experts and gurus and ninjas, hmph.) Until HBR came out with a review in mid-February, it was pretty much out of the public’s eye. And what they found was that Apple broke all the rules, and survived. And that there’s something we can learn from that.

Amongst the rules broken:

  1. Apologize and take full responsibility.
  2. Don’t create expectations with a media event.
  3. Announce the give away first.
  4. Avoid specific comparisons with competitors.
  5. Don’t air your industry’s dark secrets.

I advise you to visit the HBR or Globe and Mail pieces for the full breakdown, but the bit that I found interesting wasn’t how they broke the rules, but instead why. Plain and simple, they broke the rules because the rules didn’t satisfy their needs. They’re Apple and they’re disliked by their industry and are widely considered to be the premier cellular phone manufacturer in the world. Cowing and and bowing and scraping doesn’t do them any good—so they didn’t do it. They maintained throughout the situation that this was not their fault and not unique to their handsets. And then proved it.

This applies to all of us in PR and emergency public information not because it means we can throw away the rulebook, but because we should understand why the rules are what they are. What are you trying to accomplish by apologizing right off the bat? Does that set you up poorly for future problems? What are you saying when you minimize the problem and why are you saying it that way? If the problem has always been around, say so.

This applies to the Taco Bell piece because they did something similar. Instead of cowering when accused of having not enough “meat” in their meat, Taco Bell grabbed the offensive. Not only did they use the crisis as an opportunity to educate the public about their product (Geez, how many times can I push the whole “take advantage of the media attention” bit?), but they fought back because they were right.

What I’ve learned from all of this? There are no crisis communications rules. There is only your response to your crisis. And that should change according to the situation, the players and the world around you. In emergency planning, they say the first casualty of a situation is the plan. Why do we feel that communicating in a crisis should be any different?

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One thought on “There Are No Crisis Communications Rules

  1. “Just so”?My integration of all the reporting on the issue, tech press and general, was “if you held the phone”.

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