25 Strategies for Crisis Communication
Copyright 2016, Ronald D. Smith APR.
Excerpted from Smith, R.D. (2016) Strategic Planning for Public Relations (5th ed.) New York: Routledge / Taylor & Francis. For academic citations, it is best to refer to the textbook.
For citations of this online excerpt, use the following: Smith, R.D. (2016). 25 Strategies for Crisis Communication. Retrieved [date] from m.
When accusations or other criticisms have been made, or when an organization has been visited by difficulties or tragedies, public relations strategists are thrown into a reactive mode. In responding to outside forces, organizations should develop objectives such as gaining public understanding, maintaining and restoring reputation, and rebuilding trust and support.
The field of crisis communication management is ripe with examples of response strategies that work, and some that don’t.
Organizations can use a range of verbal and behavioral reactions in managing their response to opposition and their recovery from criticism. The following typology of public relations responses is based on a reflection of contemporary research and consulting practices, as well as the work of the above-mentioned researchers.
Typology of Reactive Strategies
One type of strategy involves a pre-emptive strike, which is taken before the opposition launches its first charge against an organization. Some bureaucrats avoid such an approach in the naive hope that criticism won’t emerge or bad news won’t surface. The reality is simple: When something bad happens, word gets out.
The strategy of an organization releasing bad news about itself is called a prebuttal. The term itself is a play on the word “rebuttal.” A prebuttal is a pre-emptive strike when bad news is inevitable. It is akin to the rhetorical concept of prolepsis, a figure of speech in which speakers raise objections to their own arguments so they can refute the opposing viewpoint.
Prebuttals are becoming increasingly common in the political arena. It was a prebuttal in 2015 when congressional Republican leaders vehemently criticized the presumed outcome of President Obama’s negotiation with Iran over nuclear containment even before any agreement had been reached.
Similarly, it was a prebuttal when Congressional Democrats “responded” to the Republican congressional leader’s speech on the economy the day before he actually gave the speech. Likewise, it was a prebuttal when National Security Advisor Susan Rice criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress the day before he delivered it.
Consider this real-life situation: A hospital had to deal with a pending report that would list it as having one of the highest patient death rates in the state. Knowing that the report was only days away and that it was statistically accurate, the hospital told reporters about the forthcoming report and explained why the rate was high: This particular hospital accepted charity patients too poor to have regular health care, specialized in geriatrics, and was the only hospital in the area treating AIDS patients at a time in the not-too-distant past when the disease meant certain death. These were important reasons explaining the high death rate. After getting the facts from the hospital, local reporters gave the announcement minimal coverage and ignored the state report a few days later as old news.
When is a prebuttal warranted? When the public inevitably will hear the accusation and when the organization can offer strong evidence for its publics to disregard the bad news or excuse the organization.
There are disadvantages to prebuttals. Consider a nonpolitical example, criticism by climate-change deniers in anticipation of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment even before his letter was issued. Now consider two downsides to such prebuttals. They generate more of an audience for the issue than it might otherwise have garnered. They also suggest a grasping-at-straws approach in which critics are seen as whining in desperation even before they know the facts.
Public relations planners sometimes use offensive response strategies, so named not because they are rude or vulgar but rather from the sports or military strategy of mounting an aggressive initiative. The five types of strategic offense—attack, embarrassment, shock, threat, and standing firm in response to criticism—are based on the premise that the organization is operating from a position of strength in the face of opposition.
An attack is an offensive response strategy claiming that an accusation of wrongdoing is an attempt to impugn the organization’s reputation by an accuser who is negligent or malicious. Often the objective underlying this strategy is to encourage an opponent to retreat or at least refrain from future criticism. Use this approach only when evidence can clearly show that accusers have grossly overstated the organization’s involvement in a problem. Let’s look at two examples of the attack strategy—one that backfired, one that was successful.
Scientology. Some organizations have successfully attacked the attacker. One such group is the Church of Scientology, which proclaims that it is “not a turn-the-other-cheek religion.” The church—though it is not legally recognized as such in some countries—has filed thousands of lawsuits against journalists, documentary producers, politicians, former church members, and others who have criticized it.
Scientology even has written guidelines on how to investigate and publicly attack its critics. The “fair game” policy has been used to justify what critics and some courts have labeled as illegal surveillance, intimidation, dirty tricks, harassment, libel, and fraud. The late L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who founded the church, wrote that such lawsuits are intended “to harass and discourage rather than win.”
Dow Corning. In this classic public relations blunder from the late 1990s, Dow Corning used the attack strategy to its own misfortune in handling a series of class-action lawsuits over its silicone breast implants. Faced with reports filled with unfavorable and inaccurate scientific information, the company’s first response was to attack the investigators. It unsuccessfully tried to cover up the problem. It also failed to demonstrate concern for women who said they were harmed, and it didn’t address consumers who thought the company had deceived them.
Most of the strategy was driven by lawyers rather than by public relations counsel. The result was a $7.3 million judgment against the company and class action lawsuits of more than $4 billion that put the corporation into Chapter 11 bankruptcy for nine years. All this despite the fact that no reputable scientific evidence showed that the implants caused disease or illness. In fact, the U.S. Institute of Medicine later found clear evidence that silicone breast implants do not cause breast cancer.
A related offensive strategy deals with embarrassment, in which an organization tries to lessen an opponent’s influence by using shame or humiliation.
This strategy was in play when the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress secretly taped Planned Parenthood officials and actors posing as biotech representatives. The group released heavily edited videos purporting to show negotiations over how much money it might charge for tissue from aborted fetuses intended for medical research.
Critics said the organization was selling baby parts. Planned Parenthood responded that the only thing being negotiated was the cost of transporting the tissue to research centers. The activist group was successful in causing serious embarrassment to Planned Parenthood, embarrassment that threatened funding in various cities and states. (More on this case in a subsequent section on concession.)
The embarrassment tactic often plays a role in political communication. In her 2010 campaign to become a Nevada senator, Tea Party candidate Sue Lowden suggested that people barter for health care by paying doctors with chickens. Her opponents created a fake “Chickens for Checkups” website. The ridicule became so strong that the state of Nevada banned chicken costumes outside polling sites.
Sometimes, in an effort to make a point, embarrassment may take a turn toward alarm. In public relations and strategic communication, shock is the attempt to startle and agitate the mind or emotions, particularly through the use of surprise, fear, disgust, or some other strong and unexpected stimulus.
Psychologists and other social scientists agree that shock advertisements increase attention. However, so-called “shockvertisements” seldom offer a long-term positive strategy for any organization unwilling to be seen as out of step with mainstream values of decency and fair play. Many observers link this limited impact to the response of many consumers to avoid such messages or to ridicule them. Think of them as the advertising equivalent of Jerry Springer, Donald Trump, or Howard Stern.
In a more nuanced observation, researchers testing ads on AIDS/HIV prevention found that shocking ads are remembered longer than parallel ads based on fear or information. Certain fashion and cosmetics corporations—notably Calvin Klein, Dolce & Cabbana, Sisley, and Benetton—have produced many shock ads over the years.
But the company that is most consistent in this approach has been People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has built a reputation for outrageous strategies in its animal-rights campaigns. PETA used shock strategy to force McDonald’s to agree to more human practices in chicken coops and slaughterhouses under its control. The advocacy group distributed “Son of Ron Unhappy Meal” boxes with a plastic cow in bloodstained hay, a plastic butchered pig, and a Ronald McDonald figure wearing a blood-spattered butcher’s apron and wielding a meat cleaver. When parents complained that PETA was upsetting their children, the group rejoined that more parents expressed disgust with how McDonald’s treated animals.
After McDonald’s conceded the fight, PETA turned its attention to how Burger King raised and killed chickens, quickly gaining the compliance of that company as well.
Case in Point: PETA’s Faith-Based Shock Strategy
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a strong anti-meat, pro-vegetarian, pro-animal rights message aimed at “total animal liberation.” The organization tries to convert religious observers of all faiths to its way of thinking, often using a shock strategy with religious imagery designed to surprise and even outrage its audiences.
One PETA ad depicted the Shroud of Turin, which many believe to be a remnant from biblical times with an image of Jesus’ face, with the caption “Make a lasting impression. Go vegetarian.” Another suggests, despite recorded biblical evidence to the contrary, that Jesus was a vegetarian—the “Prince of Peas.”
Some ads focus on the Virgin Mary. One billboard depicted her breastfeeding the Infant Jesus with the caption “If it was good enough for Jesus . . . Dump Dairy.” Reminiscent of medieval art, the ad didn’t create much chatter. But Catholic groups demanded removal of a subsequent billboard depicting the Virgin Mary cradling a chicken carcass à la Michelangelo’s Pieta with the theologically perplexing caption “Go vegetarian. It’s an Immaculate Conception.”
PETA campaign director Bruce Friedrich describes himself as a devout Catholic who believes that cruelty to animals is against his faith. That’s one reason why he wrote to the pope asking him to tell Catholics to keep lamb off the traditional Easter menu in Italy. The pope didn’t respond, perhaps because previously during a papal visit to Chicago, PETA protestors dressed as a nun and a cow with a placard “Eating meat is a bad habit.”
Activists in Jesus costumes have protested at barbecue restaurants in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and other Southern states, where people take seriously both their religion and their barbecues. The group held a boisterous rally outside a church in Louisville, Kentucky, where the president of KFC was worshipping on Christmas Eve. During Holy Week, PETA placed a 10-foot cow dressed as the pope with a crucified cow on his cross outside Catholic cathedrals in several Eastern cities. In New York, the papal cowmobile was ticketed for an illegal turn on Fifth Avenue.
PETA spokespeople say such shock tactics are timed to generate the most publicity for their cause. For PETA, negative publicity is considered positive.
If nothing else, PETA is an equal-opportunity instrument of religious shock. Its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign said “Six million people died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” As the exhibit toured 70 U.S. cities, three Canadian provinces, and 15 foreign countries, the public outcry was what you’d expect: quick, loud, and widespread.
In another Holocaust campaign, PETA displayed photos of dead Jews in Nazi concentration camps interspersed with photos of slaughtered pigs at a livestock farm and a caption “to animals, all people are Nazis.” Germany’s high court banned the ad.
PETA also has taken aim on kosher practice, asking Jews to abandon their ancient dietary laws.
It placed billboards in Utah saying that Mormons misrepresent their scripture and urging them to heed PETA’s call for vegetarianism. The group has challenged Muslims’ interpretation that the Quran permits meat eating. It also has taken on Hindus in Nepal, decrying the ritual sacrifice of animals—from rats to water buffaloes—to the goddess Gadhimai.
To date, only Buddhists seem to have escaped PETA’s faith-based shock strategy.
Making a threat is another offensive strategy, involving the promise that harm will come to the accuser or the purveyor of bad news. The threatened harm may be in the form of a lawsuit for defamation, for example. Public relations practitioners have learned to use public threats only if the information cannot be disputed in another way. They’ve also learned to beware of the ethical concerns about misusing this strategy.
6. Standing Firm
Abraham Lincoln’s biographers attribute an interesting quote to him: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
That’s the idea underlying the offensive strategy of standing firm, otherwise known as a doubledown. Sometimes an organization simply needs to reiterate its action or position as a matter of principle, allowing whatever consequences occur.
Critics blasted Starbucks for its supposed “war on Christmas” because in 2015 it featured a plain red cup with a green corporate logo rather than a traditional holiday scene. The company again stood form and largely ignored the critics, though corporate ads featured Christmas songs and a “My First Christmas” baby bib. Competitor Dunkin’ Donuts, meanwhile, used a holiday cup with holly leaves and the word “joy,” earning praise from the war-on-Christmas crowd.
Occasionally, the standing-firm strategy comes with a bit of attitude, a kind of communication smackdown. Such was the strategy behind a message from the Starbucks CEO to conservative Christian stockholders who condemned the company’s support for marriage equality. CEO Howard Schulz told the National Organization for Marriage that the stance was not a business decision but rather was about supporting diversity, one of its corporate commitments. Nevertheless, he told the critics, it wasn’t bad for business.
During a shareholders meeting, Schulz responded to critics: “If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38 percent you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much."
Another strategic communication response involves defensive response strategies such as denial, excuse, justification, or reversal—all of which involve the organization reacting less aggressively to criticism.
Using the defensive strategy of denial, an organization tries not to accept blame. It may claim that the reputed problem doesn’t exist or didn’t occur. Or if it did, that it’s not related to the organization. In the latter case, the claim generally is either one of innocence (“We didn’t do it”), mistaken identity (“You have us confused with someone else”), or blame shifting (“So-and-so did it, not us”).
A few years ago, a student at a public university was arrested for prostitution. She tried to justify her actions by claiming that she couldn’t otherwise afford tuition because of a financial-aid error. The university was quick to say “That’s absurd!” and shifted responsibility back to the student.
Be careful in shifting blame because the strategy can backfire if the organization is ultimately responsible. An executive who claims that an employee’s inappropriate action was against company policy must be prepared for scrutiny of both the company’s official policy and its way of doing business. It is best to use the strategy of denial only when the case can be publicly supported and when it can be proven that neither the organization nor anyone in its policy ranks was involved in the wrongdoing.
A commonly used defensive strategy is excuse, in which an organization tries to minimize its responsibility for the harm or wrongdoing. Excuse can take several forms, including provocation, lack of control, accident, victimization, and mere association.
The organization may claim provocation, essentially saying that it had no choice. Here’s an example from one city. The police department had just eliminated its popular mounted patrol. Amid initial criticism, the police department excused this decision by explaining that the police union had provoked the decision. The union had insisted that seniority, not horse-riding ability, be the key factor in selecting officers for the patrol, which the department argued made the mounted patrol inefficient and even dangerous. With this information was reported by the local media, public criticism quickly shifted from the police department to the union.
A variation on the excuse theme is lack of control, in which the organization reports that its actions were forced upon it. Basically this is an out-of-our-hands defense. An example of this is the manager of a manufacturing plant who blames local employee layoffs on decisions made at national corporate offices.
Another excuse is accident, essentially a couldn’t-be-helped defense. The organization suggests that factors beyond anyone’s control led to a problem. An example of this is a mayor who excuses his city’s slow progress in snow removal on unusually heavy snowfall during a two-week period, or a governor who similarly blames weather for shutting down large sections of the state’s highways and stranding hundreds of motorists.
A related but even stronger excuse is victimization, in which the organization shows that it was the target of criminals or a casualty of Mother Nature. Pepsi played this card successfully amid claims that syringes were found in diet drink cans in 1993. The corporate excuse and Pepsi’s victim role was so thoroughly accepted that consumers barely cut back on their consumption, then rebounded to give the company one of its best quarters to date in terms of sales. Pepsi’s handling of the syringe hoax has become a classic case of effective public relations.
This same victimization card has been played by many governors and mayors in excusing higher taxes and/or fewer services because they had to redirect resources toward rebuilding after natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and floods.
A final type of excuse deals with mere association, in which the organization claims that it more or less inherited a problem. For example, a newly elected city administration might try to disassociate itself from a $2 million income shortfall by claiming that careless planning by the previous administration caused the financial loss. The tactic of associating a problem with the previous administration is one that’s also been used in Washington and state capitals for years, not always successfully.
Another defensive strategy is justification, which admits the organization did the deed but did so for good reason (or at least, not for a bad reason). Like the excuse response, justification has several subcategories.
One type of justification is based on good intention, in which an organization attempts to soften the blow of bad results by claiming that it was trying to accomplish something positive. For example, a cab company may justify one of its drivers sideswiping a parked car by claiming the driver was trying to avoid hitting a pedestrian. This defense generally fails to cover what was a bad decision at the beginning. So if evidence were to show that the cab driver was speeding at the time of the accident, the good-intention justification wouldn’t stand.
Another type of justification is context, in which the organization asks its publics to “look at it from our side.” Robin Hood seen from the point of view of the sheriff of Nottingham looks much different than from the perspective of the Nottingham peasants. Likewise, investors and environmentalists each may have different views of a company that violated technicalities of clean-air regulations. And the body politic often incredulously wonders how the same facts can be interpreted so differently by Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., Tories and Grits in Canada, Labourites and Conservatives in the U.K., Libs and Laborites in Australia, and so on.
Idealism is a type of justification based on an appeal to ethical, moral, or spiritual values, such as leaders of a church protest against the death penalty who explain that their actions, though perhaps unpopular with some church members, are nevertheless in line with—even commanded by—their religious principles.
Here again, a card played doesn’t guarantee a hand won. For years, Catholic bishops have been opposing the death penalty, abortion, and most U.S. military entanglements; their Methodist counterparts support abstinence from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; and Episcopalians are on record for increasing the minimum wage—all without necessarily winning the hearts and minds of the folks in their pews.
A final type of justification involves mitigation. This admits to the problem but seeks to lessen blame because of impairment, illness, coercion, lack of training, and so on. However, if the mitigating factor is the responsibility of the organization, the attempt at justification probably will fail. Mitigation didn’t offset the reported drunkenness of the Exxon Valdez captain that factored in the Alaskan oil spill. Nor did it satisfy critics blaming New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for his budget-cutting decisions prior to 9/11 that hampered rescue and recovery efforts, adding to the death toll for police and firefighters.
The phrase “turning the tables” comes from table games such as chess or backgammon. Turn the table around, and you play from the opponent’s previous position.
A type of strategic reversal involves the organization taking criticism and turning it into a positive. That is what the Texas Road House restaurant chain did by turning potentially negative publicity to its advantage after Consumer Reports labeled it “the noisiest chain in America.” TRH launched a “Proud to Be Loud” public relations campaign, arguing that upbeat music, laughter, crowds, and line dancing by the staff “sure beats the heck out of wine sipping, or chirping crickets, and clinking silverware.” The chain reported media coverage that would have cost $500,000 in advertising, improved employee morale, and new customers not upset by the noise.
In public relations, a difficult-to-achieve strategy is to help the weakened party becomes the stronger one. In this David-and-Goliath strategy employed by Dyngus Day celebrants, an organization under criticism tries to gain the upper hand.
Case in Point: Dyngus Day’s Strategic Reversal
Reversal sometimes can be accomplished with grace, even humor. That was the outcome when CNN commentator Anderson Cooper appeared to criticize the Dyngus Day celebration in Buffalo. “So stupid. Really, so stupid,” he said on air, later apologizing and trying to say that his remark was directed at himself for launching into a giggle befitting a 13-year-old girl, so much that he had to walk off camera to regain his composure.
Admittedly, Dyngus Day has some humorous elements. It’s a Polish American custom on the day after Easter, celebrating romance and frivolity after the solemn spirit of Lent. It’s a day with deep historic, religious, and ethnic roots in Western New York, which has the third-largest Polish American community in the U.S.
Young women, usually dressed in traditional Polish clothing, sprinkle men with water. The men tap women with pussy willow branches. Sometimes folks toss buckets of water at each other. Okay, you have to admit that Cooper had something to giggle about.
Polish-Americans often have been the brunt of ethnic jokes and demeaning stereotypes, so it was not surprising that they would take offense at the criticism in a national forum, questioning Cooper’s insensitivity in what they considered an ethnic slur. A Jewish senator said the TV host “shouldn’t mock what he doesn’t understand.” Others flooded CNN with responses, including 500 comments, mostly negative, on Cooper’s Facebook page. Some accused him of bigotry and drew parallels with unlikely ethnic criticism toward Kwanzaa or St. Patrick’s Day.
Others saw humor in the entire incident and praised Cooper for apologizing on air the next day. It was that apology that sent organizers of the annual event into a reversal strategy.
They publicly accepted Cooper’s apology and sent him some Polish sausage and pussy willows. They reprinted newspaper articles about the incident on their website (dyngusdaybuffalo.com). They also invited Cooper to Buffalo the following year to assume the title of Pussy Willow Prince and lead the world’s largest Dyngus Day parade, something Cooper said he looked forward to but didn’t act on.
Their website added: “Dziekuje [jen-KOO-yeh, thank you] Anderson Cooper for helping make Dyngus Day in Buffalo an international news story.” The group reported 90,000 hits to its website in the two days following Cooper’s initial story, and many more after his on-air apology.
Several diversionary response strategies also are open to communication planners. They include concessions, ingratiation, disassociation, and relabeling. All of these are attempts to shift the gaze of the publics from the problem associated with the organization.
Using the diversionary strategy of concession, an organization tries to rebuild its relationship with its publics by giving the public something it wants. The focus here should be on a concession that is mutually valued by both the organization and its public.
For example, after objections to a car advertisement parodying Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Volkswagen France and its advertising agency offered as a concession a major financial contribution to a religious charity whose work was supported by the protestors. Both the company and its offended public recognized the value of the donation. That is necessary for the concession strategy to be effective.
Perceived value was missing when Chevron responded to a mine explosion that killed a worker and disrupted a small town near Pittsburgh by offering people in the town coupons for free pizza.
Instead of providing gifts to involved publics, some concessions are aimed at generating favorable publicity for an organization under fire. Crisis counselor James Lukaszewski revealed that he advised Exxon to charter aircraft to carry volunteers from major U.S. cities to Alaska so they could help clean up some of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled in Prince William Sound. Exxon rejected the idea on grounds that the airlift would cost too much—a few hundred thousand dollars. The company eventually spent $2.2 billion in cleanup costs, another $1 billion to settle state and federal lawsuits, and $300 million in lost wages to Alaskan fishermen, plus millions in legal fees fighting lawsuits that ordered punitive damages as high as $11.9 billion, much of it linked to Exxon’s poor reputation.
Certainly an environmental airlift would not have eliminated all of Exxon’s expenses. But in hindsight, it seems fair to conclude that an airlift would have helped the company’s reputation, which in turn could have eased its legal battles as well as its strained relations with stockholders, consumers, government agencies, and the media. Business Week magazine later commented, “Exxon could have emerged from the case with a far better image if it had taken a more conciliatory approach…. Instead, Exxon took a tough stand. And more than a decade later, the furious debates, and the bitterness, continue” (“Commentary: It’s Time to Put the Valdez Behind Us,” 1999).
Case in Point: Boycotting Nestlé
Public relations strategists should use concession only if adversaries will value the gift and if the organization will remain committed to that concession.
A five-decade boycott shows that this was not the case with the multinational Nestlé company, which began facing criticism of its marketing of infant formula in lesser-developed nations during the late 1970s. At issue was the company’s marketing efforts discouraging breastfeeding that risked the health and lives of millions of babies. The risk was particularly acute in developing areas of the world, where baby formula was mixed with contaminated water.
After several court challenges spearheaded by Catholic nuns affiliated with the Interfaith Centre for Corporate Responsibility, the Infant Formula Action Coalition launched a U.S. boycott of Nestlé products in 1977. Nestlé also was criticized by the American Association of Pediatrics, as the boycott quickly spread to Canada, Australia, and several European companies.
Attempting to offer a concession to its critics, Nestlé established a code of ethics and agreed to implement international standards set by the World Health Organization. As a result, the boycott was suspended in 1984.
But Nestlé’s concession strategy provided only a temporary diversion for critics, who quickly saw evidence that the company was not abiding by its own code of ethics. Subsequent opposition to Nestlé grew in the face of what critics viewed as insincerity and hypocrisy. In 1989 the boycott was relaunched.
After 50 years, the International Baby Food Action Network is still opposing the Swiss-based multinational. Critics call it one of the most hated companies in the world.
In 2014, the network successfully pressured Nestle to drop its promotional claim that its milk substitute gives babies a “natural start.” But the following year, a protest at the company shareholders’ meeting claimed that Nestle was still violating international marketing protocols.
The network points to a record of success. After nine years of boycott pressure, Nestlé agreed not to give complimentary milk formula to mothers of babies under six months. In 2011, the boycott was relaunched in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2012, the group’s Baby Milk Action coalition sponsored a Nestlé-free week and urged supporters not to use Nestlé candy for Halloween.
Meanwhile, the International Nestlé Boycott Committee claims success in 70 countries that have adopted stronger laws monitoring marketing practices. The list of boycotters includes groups as diverse as the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and the Muslim Women’s Association, European political parties and lawmakers in several countries.
Many North American and European universities still ban campus sales of Nestlé products, which include Cheerios, DiGiorno pizza, Juicy Juice, and Häagen-Dazs. The company also manufactures brands such as Carnation, Stouffer’s, and Lean Cuisine; Purina, Alpo, and Friskies pet foods, and more than 100 candy products.
Another diversionary strategy, though one of questionable ethical standing, is ingratiation. Essentially, the organization attempts to manage the negative situation by charming its publics or “tossing a bone,” giving something of relatively little significance to the organization in an attempt to turn the spotlight away from the accusations and criticisms.
Concession differs from ingratiation in that the former involves something of real value to the public; ingratiation is more cosmetic. Examples of ingratiation are seen in the case of state lawmakers who vote against long-term tax reform for homeowners while offering a token and temporary tax reduction.
Another diversionary strategy is disassociation, which attempts to distance an organization from the wrongdoing associated with it. This can be effective when a mishap has occurred not because of organizational policy but because policy was not observed, especially when the organization has severed ties with the cause of the problem.
The University of Oklahoma accomplished disassociation in 2015 when it quickly expelled two students who led a fraternity in using racist slurs and chanting about lynching and perpetually banning black men from joining the fraternity. Immediately after the chant was posted online, the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity closed the campus chapter, and within hours the university shut down a fraternity house and evicted its residents.
Carefully think through the implications of disassociation. Justin Timberlake found that his success in distancing himself from Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl halftime “nipple flash” controversy in 2004 also alienated many of his African American fans.
Trustees of Penn State University tried to disassociate their school from reports that an assistant football coach, since retired, had molested young boys in the locker room. They said the school had not handled the charges appropriately after a graduate student reported what he had seen to head football coach Joe Paterno. The trustees immediately fired the revered coach, along with the president and other senior university officials.
From a public relations standpoint, the trustees clearly had to act decisively and quickly. But in a clumsy attempt to disassociate itself from the scandal by shifting blame to Coach Paterno, the university alienated many supporters, including wealthy and previously generous donors.
Likewise, the National Collegiate Athletic Association also tried to quickly disassociate itself with the scandal, fined the university $60 million, stripped the coach of 111 football wins from during the tenure of his assistant coach, banned postseason play for four years, and disallowed football scholarships. Three years later, after a public outcry and amid internal pressures, NCAA restored the wins and eliminated the post-season ban, sort of disassociating itself with its own previous disassociation.
Another diversionary strategy, relabeling, tries to distance the organization from criticism. It involves offering an agreeable name in replacement of a negative label that has been applied by others.
Some relabeling is innocuous. Prunes became dried plums and sales increased. Rapeseed sounded nasty, so it became Canola oil. Likewise, popularity increased when dolphinfish was renamed mahi-mahi, goosefish became monkfish, slimehead turned into orange roughy, and toothfish was relabeled as Chilean sea bass.
Some relabeling is downright silly, like the unsuccessful attempt to rename French fries “freedom fries” because of anti-French sentiment after the U.S. invaded Iraq. The fact that French fries originated in Belgium didn’t seem to enter the discussion. The same folks tried to give us “freedom toast,” but they over-reached when they questioned the heredity and patriotism of French’s mustard, which is based in New Jersey.
Much relabeling involves corporate names. For decades, Philip Morris was synonymous with tobacco, but when tobacco became a magnet for social criticism and lawsuits, Philip Morris Companies changed its name to the Altria Group in an attempt to insulate the company from political pressure. The company also bought web domain names such as altriastinks.org and altriakills.com to prevent rogue sites from having easy dissemination of anti-Altria messages. The name change also allowed Altria subsidiary Kraft Foods to dissociate itself from the tainted tobacco label and, as one critic said, “to make itself invisible.”
Similarly, trying to create a distance from its own record of fraud and bankruptcy, WorldCom changed its name to MCI, the name of its more respected subsidiary. Charging that WorldCom had hijacked the name, critics called for a boycott, and the name change failed to help the company’s reputation improve.
After the ill-fated Exxon Valdez oil spill, the vessel was successively renamed the Exxon Mediterranean, SeaRiver Mediterranean, S/R Mediterranean, and finally simply Mediterranean. Regardless of the name, the tanker was not allowed in American waters. In 2005 the vessel was sold to a Hong Kong shipping company and renamed Dong Fang Ocean. In 2008 it was retrofitted as an ore carrier and renamed Oriental Nicety. In 2012 the ship was sold for scrap metal.
Blackwater, the private military company disgraced by its actions in Iraq, changed its name to Xe Services. Two years later it changed the name again, calling itself Academi, which its CEO admitted was intended to reflect a more boring image that wouldn’t reflect the business’ controversial mission as mercenary soldiers.
Other examples of rebranding reflect a more positive rationale to capitalize on a particular consumer strength. Thus, Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries changed its name to that of its most recognized brand and became Panasonic Shikoku Electronics. Federated Department Stores changed its name to the Macy’s Group in a bow to the drawing power of its most famous brand.
The strategy of relabeling can backfire if an organization’s publics conclude that relabeling is deceptive or, worse, if it trivializes the problem. When MTV created a new phrase, “wardrobe malfunction,” to explain Janet Jackson’s exposed breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show it produced, the FCC was unamused. It fined CBS a record $550,000 for indecency.
Chrysler exemplifies the high cost of deception associated with relabeling. Charged with odometer fraud, the company said that corporate executives had merely driven new cars with disconnected odometers as part of a “quality test program,” even though some had been in accidents. Chrysler was fined $7.6 million for selling the cars as new vehicles.
Another family of strategies deals with vocal commiseration, in which the organization expresses empathy and understanding about the misfortune suffered by its publics. These include concern, condolence, regret, and apology.
One type of vocal commiseration is concern, through which the organization expresses that it is not indifferent to a problem without admitting guilt. Generally this is only a temporary response, usually accompanied by a promised investigation.
That was the scenario in 2013 when the Department of Homeland Security expressed “serious concerns” about reports of abuses by Border Patrol agents in Arizona. But it could not stop there. DHS went on to promise an investigation and to improve training for agents.
Similarly, many athletic coaches and team owners have needed to express concern about off-field problems caused by players, often troubles associated with domestic violence, sexual abuse, misuse of alcohol and other drugs, and similar illegal behavior. Usually their statements of concern are accompanied by promises to investigate and cooperate with law enforcement, sometimes by firing, fining, or applying other sanctions to the offending players.
During the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, many observers initially were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to BP, Transocean, and Halliburton in trying to repair the damage. BP at first accepted responsibility and seemed to be fulfilling its promise to work hard to contain the spill and then clean it up. Public sentiment shifted when BP chief Tony Hayward minimized the disaster, then gushing thousands of barrels of oil a day into the sea, as “very, very modest,” and when he subsequently complained, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
A more formal type of vocal commiseration is condolence, in which the organization expresses grief over someone’s loss or misfortune, again without admitting guilt. The strategy works best when the organization is free of blame in the cause of the problem.
A good example of this strategy is the response of Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia, immediately after the airline’s passenger jet crashed with 162 persons aboard in 2014. The disaster was later linked mainly to equipment failure and weather conditions. Fernandes tweeted: “My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers. Nothing is more important to us.” He posted with several more tweets in the following days, including: “My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved. On behalf of AirAsia my condolences.”
That was the same sentiment that ValuJet president Lewis Jordan expressed after one of his airplanes went down in the Florida Everglades, killing 110 people—a crash later attributed to a shipper who had illegally mislabeled canisters of flammable oxygen. “It’s Mother’s Day weekend—we know that,” Jordan told reporters the day after the crash. “Words in the English language, at least the ones I know, are inadequate to express the amount of grief and sadness we feel.” The company, which later merged into AirTran, put action behind its words, sponsoring a memorial service for 46 victims whose remains could not be identified.
Another vocal strategy, regret, involves admitting sorrow and remorse for a situation, a wish that an event had not happened. Like compassion, regret does not necessarily imply fault; in fact, statements of regret may specifically not admit to any wrongdoing. This is an important perspective that public relations advisors bring in crisis situations. By expressing regret, public hostility can be tempered and the number and intensity of lawsuits may be contained.
Regret without apology sometimes is not enough. Japan’s Emperor Akihito learned that lesson on a visit to England. The emperor spoke of his “deep sorrow and pain” over suffering during World War II. But former prisoners of war booed the emperor, and one protestor burned a Japanese flag in his presence. A spokesman for the veterans said, “The emperor’s speech does not alter the position one jot as far as any expression of an apology to the POWs is concerned.” The reluctance of the Japanese government to officially apologize for wartime military atrocities has strained its relations with a number of countries.
BP found that its online statement of nonapologetic regret for the loss of life and environmental damage caused by the oil leak from the Deepwater Horizon failed to satisfy critics seeking a real apology. The company CEO’s testimony before a congressional panel wasn’t any better.
Regret sometimes extends to the actions of others. After Congress demanded a formal apology from Japan for sex slavery in occupied territories during World War II, Japan’s prime minister said it was “regrettable.” Not the wartime military action; the American resolution. The prime minister said Japan had previously apologized and made amends for its wartime transgressions, and did not plan to respond to the House resolution.
Congress also incurred the wrath of the Turkish government in 2007 when a House committee passed a similar nonbinding resolution labeling as “genocide” the Turkish massacre of Armenians during World War I. The irony is that Congress had at that time yet to apologize to its own people for black slavery in the American South or the country’s genocide campaign against American Indians.
The vocal strategy focused most on the public’s interests and least on the organization’s concerns is apology. Issuing an apology involves publicly accepting full responsibility and asking forgiveness. Use this strategy when the organization is clearly at fault and when long-term rebuilding of relationships is more important than short-term stalling or legal posturing.
Make sure the apology is straightforward, such as the statement by Frank Lorenzo, chairman of Continental Airlines, who said in a full-page newspaper ad, “We grew so fast that we made mistakes.”
In 2015, the Seattle Seahawks tweeted about their come-from-behind victory over the Green Bay Packers, “We shall overcome. #MLKDay.” Immediately followers began reacting: “unbelievable,” “disgusting,” totally inappropriate,” “mock the legacy of MLK on MLK day.” An hour later, the team deleted the post and tweeted: “We apologize for poor judgment in a tweet sent earlier. We did not intend to compare football to the civil rights legacy of Dr. King.”
Bad boy-rapper Kanye West reaped a load of criticism for his rant after musician Beck received the top-album award during the 2015 Grammy awards. West said Beck didn’t deserve the award and should have given it to fellow nominee Beyonce. Amid a flood of criticism, West backpedaled his criticism, even saying that Beck’s album, which he hadn’t listened to previously, was “kind of good.” West then issued a quick tweet to his 11 million followers: “I would like to publicly apologize to Beck, I’m sorry Beck. Simultaneously, he tweeted a reconciliation statement about Bruno Mars, whose artistry he previously had criticized: “I also want to publicly apologize to Bruno Mars, I used to hate on him but I really respect what he does as an artist.”
In a pattern adopted by other athletes, Michael Vick scored high points for accepting personal responsibility, apologizing to kids who look up to athletes, and expressing shame for misleading teammates about his involvement in illegal dog fighting. Later, after prison and bankruptcy, Vick rebuilt his football career with the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, and Pittsburgh Steelers, regaining some of his earlier product endorsements.
Similarly, after beating up his girlfriend and being suspended by the National Football League, Ray Rice apologized “to the kids who looked up to me” and others, adding that “there is no excuse for domestic violence.” Likewise, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings quickly apologized for injuring his son in what resulted in a child-abuse charge. Peterson explained that he had disciplined his son with a tree branch, the way his father had disciplined him as a boy. He also indicated that he had seen a psychologist to learn about more appropriate ways to discipline children. The NFL suspended him for the remainder of the season.
After the Rice and Peterson cases, the NFL engaged in its own damage control, not apologizing for its past lax enforcement of weak personal conduct policy but announcing tough new rules on player misconduct including assault and domestic violence. Major League Baseball and its players association followed the NFL with requirements for investigation, education, intervention, treatment, and punishment for similar offenses. The National Basketball League moved quickly to enforce its strong policy against domestic violence, though National Hockey league faced continuing criticism over its own weak policy against off-ice domestic violence.
Case in Point: Red Cross, Social Media, and Beer
Sometimes a light touch can modulate a strategic apology. The American Red Cross diffused a minor social media crisis with humor after its social media specialist tweeted not just to close friends as she intended but to the organization’s 270,000 Twitter followers.
The rogue tweet read: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer… when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd.”
After getting phone calls in the middle of the night, social media director Wendy Harmon took down the tweet and added a humorous corrective note for the Red Cross Twitter followers: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” Tweeter Gloria Huang also apologized from her private account, blaming her inability to use HootSuite correctly.
The subject of the original tweet, Dogfish Head beer, then came to the aid of the Red Cross and did itself a favor at the same time. The brewer tweeted to its 240,000 followers: “#craftbeer @dogfishbeer fans, donate 2 @redcross 2day. Tweet with #gettingslizzerd. Donate here…”
Then some pubs that sell the craft beer in 30 states began a beer-for-blood offer: “Show us you donated a pint @redcross today & we’ll buy you a pint of @dogfishbeer #gettingslizzerd.”
The incident was not as damaging as it might have been without the quick and lighthearted response. By taking quick action, the Red Cross recovered form the incident with its dignity intact”—and above-average donations for the next few weeks. “We are an organization that deals with life-changing disasters,” explained a Red Cross executive, “and this wasn’t one of them.” It also helped that the 130-year-old service organization consistently ranks high in credibility and community recognition.
It’s important to locate a corporate apology in the right context. For crises that involve the loss of human life, that context must be taken very seriously. Here’s some advice from The Perfect Apology—a collegial assortment of professors, business people, and consultants. The online resource (perfectapology.com) asks its clients to answer four basic questions:
1. What are you apologizing for?
2. Whom are you apologizing to?
3. How do you apologize?
4. When should you apologize?
It advises that apologies should not include excuses, and reminds clients that a sincere and unprompted apologize fits into as company’s overall customer relations program.
Case in Point: Different Apologies from Mattel and China
Sometimes an apology needs to be put into context so the public relations impact is not overlooked. That was the case as concern grew about the safety of Mattel toys made in China. A top Mattel official met with China’s product-safety official to issue an apology to consumers.
Mattel said it was sorry for the recall of millions of toys and that it would try to prevent future problems—at least, that’s the version reported in Europe and North America. The Chinese version went more like this: “Mattel is sorry for having to recall Chinese-made toys due to the company’s design flaws and for harming the reputation of Chinese manufacturing companies.”
It was, in fact, a design flaw that caused the recall of more than 17 million toys. Only 2 million of those were recalled specifically because the Chinese firms used lead paint, which is prohibited in the US.
China had previously been stung with a series of recalls undermining confidence in its manufactured goods (pet food, toothpaste, packaged seafood, baby cribs). China needed the public apology, and it needed the explanation to be clear that the fault was with Mattel, which critics agreed deserved the bigger blame because of corporate policies to cut costs and speed up production.
Like all strategies, apology must be considered in light of the particular public involved. Don’t assume that how organizational managers or spokespersons want to frame an apology is the best way to do so. Consider culture and how the key public will respond to the apology.
Naomi Sugimoto (1997) reported in a study, for example, that the Japanese are three times more likely than Americans are to ask for forgiveness as part of an apology. The Japanese request also is much more explicit (“Please forgive me”) than is the typical American one (“I hope you will understand”).
Case in Point: Navy Apology in Intercultural Context
An apology can take on differing expectations depending on culture. In Japan, for example, a person who injures another is expected to apologize personally.
Such an apology was expected following a sea tragedy off Hawaii in 2001, when a U.S. submarine surfaced quickly and collided with a small Japanese high school training boat. Five fishermen and four Japanese students were killed. The sub had been showing off for some civilian visitors; the visitors may actually have been at the controls when the accident occurred. Japanese media reported that the Navy ship did not try to assist survivors after the accident.
After the accident, the U.S. submarine captain issued a statement through his lawyer expressing “sincere regret.” But the Japanese rejected the statement.
President George W. Bush apologized on U.S. television, but the Japanese people remained unsatisfied. Public apologies from the secretaries of state and defense were similarly dismissed, as was a personal apology by the U.S. commander of the Pacific fleet to the families of the victims. Even a personal apology by the U.S. ambassador to both the prime minister and the emperor were found insufficient. Instead, the Japanese expected to hear directly and personally from the one man responsible for the accident—the submarine captain, Commander Scott Waddle.
Three weeks later, Waddle hand wrote nine letters and asked that they be delivered to the families of the victims. The Navy’s second-ranking admiral went to a small town in Japan to meet with the fathers of two of the dead students. Bowing deeply in a gesture of profound humility, he personally apologized and promised a full investigation. But that still wasn’t the personal apology expected by the Japanese families.
Navy officials, apparently unfamiliar with the healing that a personal apology could bring, refused to allow Waddle to personally express his sorrow and contrition. But a month after the accident—against his lawyers’ advice—Waddle finally met with family members who had been brought to Hawaii to observe the Navy investigation. He bowed deeply and spoke through tear-filled eyes about his remorse. And finally, the families understood his sincerity and accepted his apology.
Nearly two years later, newly resigned from the Navy, Waddle traveled to Ehime prefecture in Japan to apologize personally to the victim’s families and to survivors of the accident.
Said the mother of one of the teenage boys who died in the accident: “I am first and foremost the family member of a victim, and Mr. Waddle is first and foremost a victimizer. But when I saw Mr. Waddle as a person who was crying and apologizing, I thought he was apologizing from the heart.”
The aftermath of the apology has brought a measure of reconciliation. Hawaii built a monument with an annual memorial service. Boys from Hawaii and Ehime play an annual memorial baseball tournament. The current relationship also includes a new sister-school program, mutual tree-planting ceremonies, and a summer internship in Ehime for University of Hawaii students.
Apologies and Lawyers. Strategic apologies sometimes are opposed by corporate lawyers, who sometimes such expressions they will be used against the organization in a lawsuit. This concern is legitimate, but it fails to consider the opportunities an apology makes possible.
Public relations counsel should be quick to point out an important alternative: An apology can prevent lawsuits, or at least limit damages sought by claimants or assessed by judges or juries. It also can be good business with stockholders.
Some legal observers view Volkswagen’s offer of $1,000 gift cards to 480,000 customers as a hedge against lawsuits over its diesel emissions scandal. Half a billion dollars is a lot of money, but legal experts warned that lawsuits could cost the company much more.
Researchers looked at annual stock prices for 14 companies over 21 years and concluded that stocks increased for companies that accepted responsibility for poor financial performances, compared with those that blamed external factors.
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone faced massive lawsuits after their products were linked to 148 rollover deaths. In 2001, three Ford officials went to the hospital bedside of a Texas woman who was paralyzed in one of the accidents. There they apologized, videotaping their action for broadcast on national television. The bedside apology ended an out-of-court settlement with the paralyzed woman.
When Odwalla, a producer of juice products, faced a crisis because its apple juice contaminated by E. coli was linked to a child’s death and the illness of several other consumers, the company initiated a voluntary recall, sent representatives to meet with the family of the young victim, and set up a webpage to update its customers. Odwalla relied on advice from both public relations and legal counselor. A case study by Kathleen Martinelli and William Briggs (1998) found that nearly 47 percent of the company’s statements reflected traditional public relations responses: explaining its policy, investigating allegations, expressing concern for victims, taking steps to prevent a recurrence of the problem. Only 12 percent reflected the common legal response of denying guilt, minimizing responsibility, and shifting blame to the plaintiffs.
Odwalla eventually was fined $1.5 million—a relatively mild sum. Compare this to the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box fast food crisis, in which four people died from E. coli. The company’s first response was from a legal standpoint: no comment, followed by attempts to shift blame to its supplier. Jack-in-the-Box eventually paid $58.5 million in fines.
Defense attorneys often fear corporate apologies, but in personal-injury cases in particular, apologies can save the company money. Some attorneys point out that clients seeking an admission of corporate guilt often bring lawsuits, and a public apology can lessen the amount of money sought by an injured party or awarded by a sympathetic jury.
Easing the way for corporate apologies, Massachusetts passed a law that “statements, writings, or benevolent gestures expressing sympathy . . . relating to the pain, suffering, or death of a person involved in an accident . . . shall be inadmissible as evidence of an admission of liability in a civil action.” California, Texas, Florida, and Washington followed with similar laws.
Additionally, 37 states have laws preventing expressions of condolence or apology by doctors to patients or their families being used in court as evidence of wrongdoing. According to the Sorry Works Coalition (www.sorryworks.net), these “I’m sorry” laws are meant to promote communication between doctors and their patients and to assist doctors in lawsuits. Meanwhile, some states are considering medical apology laws that mitigate malpractice lawsuits when a doctor expresses regret over a patient’s death or injury.
Case in Point: Air Midwest and Legal Aspects of a Public Apology
The editor of the Aviation Law Section’s newsletter for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America reported that corporate contrition, not monetary compensation, is the most important factor for surviving family members after an airplane crash.
The newsletter cited a groundbreaking lawsuit, Shepherds v. Air Midwest, that yielded what the headline proclaimed as “Another Level of Justice: The Public Apology.”
An Air Midwest crash in North Carolina had killed all 21 aboard. The victim’s families initially faced a cadre of corporate lawyers who took the usual legal stance opposing any public apology or admission of responsibility.
The airline attorneys and trial judge were surprised by the family’s lawsuit. The family refused to even negotiate compensation until the company first agreed to give a public apology and promise to put safety first. Eventually the airline’s legal team agreed to the family’s term that any settlement must include a public apology. The outcome was an out-of-court financial settlement, along with a public memorial ceremony attended by families and company officials.
At the service, company president Greg Stephens noted a rigorous investigation that had led to several improvements in airplane maintenance, operation, and general safety issues.
“We have taken substantial measures to prevent similar accidents and incidents in the future, so that your losses will not have been suffered in vain,” said Stephens, whose apology was clear: “We are truly sorry, and regret and apologize to everyone affected by this tragic event.”
The law firm that obtained the apology later was hired to represent families of victims of a Continental flight that crashed near Buffalo that killed 50 persons aboard. The crash investigation eventually led to changes in airline safety, including crew training and pilot fatigue.
And then there is the pseudo-apology, sometimes called a nonapology. This is an insincere or half-hearted attempt that, like the previously discussed concept of regret, can be worse than no apology at all.
A nonapology might blame the victim of the offense: “I’m sorry that you took offense” or “I regret you over-reacted to what I said.” Or this gem from radio talker Rush Limbaugh: “I regret that you heard me say that.” Some such pseudo-apologies take advantage of passive voice: “Mistakes were made.” That’s like Adam and Eve telling God: “Apples were eaten.”
Beware also similar false apologies that lament the effect but not the underlying transgression. Avoid pseudo-apologies such as those by any number of politicians who have felt compelled to apologize “for anything I may have done that offended you,” often adding, “but it was only meant as a joke.”
A similar nonapology uses the “if” format: “I’m sorry if you were offended.” What’s missing from this is an admission “…by my blatantly offensive words and deeds.” That would make it a real apology instead of a sloppy pretense that suggests the victim was simply oversensitive. Other nonapology formulas include “I’m sorry you didn’t get the joke,” “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” “I’m sorry my comments were taken out of context,” “I’m sorry; I was just trying to help,” and almost any sentence that begins, “I’m sorry, but…”
Colorado’s Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn quickly realized he had spoken with insensitivity, many called it racism, when he called President Obama “a tar baby.” He soon posted a note on his website with a presumptive element: Lamborn “today sent a personal letter to President Barack Obama apologizing for using a term some find insensitive . . . He regrets that he chose the phrase ‘tar baby’ rather than the word ‘quagmire.’ The Congressman is confident that the President will accept his heartfelt apology.”
Lamborn’s pseudo-apology blamed people who were offended without accepting responsibility for having offended them. It then quickly kicked the ball to the other end of the field, setting up a scenario in which the president would look petty if he didn’t accept Lamborn’s quasi-contrition. Wisely, the White House ignored both the statement and the congressman’s letter.
Sometimes an apology is hurt because the speaker doesn’t know when to stop. Before he was ousted as owner of the LA Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling went on television in 2014 to apologize for his racist comments. He started out fine: “I made a terrible, terrible mistake … I’m here to apologize.” But later in his interview he said of successful Jewish businessmen like himself, “they will help their people”; but some successful African Americans, “they don’t want to help anybody.” Shortly thereafter, the NBA forced him to sell the team.
A positive response to opposition and criticism involves rectifying behavior strategies, in which the organization does something to repair the damage done to its publics. These include investigation, corrective action, restitution, and repentance.
Using the rectifying behavior of investigation, the organization promises to examine the situation and then to act as the facts warrant. This is only a short-term strategy, a way of buying time. Eventually the organization will have to respond with more substance. Use the investigation strategy only when the facts are uncertain enough to warrant a delay in other strategic responses.
Case in Point: Volkswagen Emissions Scandal
Volkswagen used the investigation tactic when the scandal broke in 2015 that it had installed software that masked illegal levels of emissions on its diesel-fueled Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen autos. U.S. environmental authorities uncovered the scandal. About 11 million cars and SUVs were involved globally, 8.5 million of them eventually recalled.
VW’s initial statement was a public apology and the promise of an investigation led by outside experts, an international team headed by a U.S. law firm. The probe was to root out those responsible for the scam to beat emission standards for auto exhaust.
Quickly following this was the resignation of CEO Martin Winterkorn. His successor, CEO Matthias Müller, oversaw the firing or resignation of dozens of top engineers and other company officials. Others were suspended from their jobs until they might be cleared by the investigation.
The new CEO called the company’s investigation and response “a painful process, but for us it is the only alternative. For us, the only thing that counts is the truth.” A couple weeks later, VW appointed a new chairman, Hans Dieter Poetsch, who affirmed the investigation. He vowed that it was “leaving no stone unturned.”
Reuters noted that “It takes an awful long time to build up a reputation and not long to destroy it, and … the interesting issue for VW going forward will be how to limit the damage and not cause the kind of brand destruction that has impacted other companies in the past.”
Like Toyota’s Lexus and GM’s Saturn several years earlier, VW was hoping to use the recall as an opportunity to shore up relations with its customers and to actually enhance its brand reputation. Initially, the scandal had little to no impact on sales.
The company’s hoped to paint this as a one-time breach in ethics by some rogue employees that, now exposed, would allow VW to reclaim its reputation as a respected green company. Some observers predicted the eventual cost to VW would be about $50 billion for more for the recalls, lost sales, and likely lawsuits, though after its stock dropped about 25 percent, some investors were repurchasing VW stock.
20. Corrective Action
A stronger rectifying behavior is corrective action, which involves taking steps to contain a problem, repair the damage and/or prevent its recurrence. This is a strategy that can serve the mutual interests of both the organization and its public. Take corrective action if the organization is in a position to fix a problem, especially if it was in some way unprepared or negligent.
This was the case with Texaco when company executives made racist statements. Texaco responded aggressively with rectifying action that included sensitivity training and a procedure to weed out discrimination within the company.
Corrective action generally is expected when the organization has been at fault. But the response is even more powerful and positive when an organization willingly accepts responsibility for fixing a problem it did not cause.
An example of this strategy is Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the cyanide deaths associated with Tylenol. Though it was clear from the beginning that the company was not even negligently responsible for the product tampering, Johnson & Johnson nevertheless accepted the challenge to contain the damage and prevent any more.
Combining various public relations response strategies, the company conducted an investigation and expressed compassion. But its strongest efforts were in taking corrective actions. Johnson & Johnson recalled the product and then introduced a new triple-seal safety packaging that soon became the industry standard.
Another rectifying behavior, restitution, serves the mutual interests of the organization and its publics. It involves making amends by compensating victims or restoring a situation to its earlier condition. Such a response may be forced upon an organization through the legal process, but some organizations have found it beneficial to offer restitution before it is required.
The strongest type of rectifying behavior is repentance, which involves both a change of heart and a change in action. Repentance signals an organization’s full atonement in the classic sense that it turns away from a former position and becomes an advocate for a new way of doing business. Many organizations, caught in a moral or legal embarrassment, promise repentance and a future of right doing, but few achieve such a turnaround.
Sometimes an organization may combine repentance with several other strategies. A turn-around, for example, may also involve investigation, justification, restitution, and concession, along with an apology.
Some companies learn to improve their public relations even during a crisis. After Barilla pasta’s CEO said in 2014 that his company wouldn’t “do ads with homosexuals because we like the traditional family,” the company quickly apologized, appointed a new CEO, hired a chief diversity officer, and created a “diversity and inclusion board” of outside consultants. A year later, human rights activists were citing Barilla as a company that had done a 180 on gay rights. The company had funded anti-bullying groups, featured lesbians at its website, and expanded its anti-discrimination policy to include gay and transgendered people. Such actions earned Barilla a perfect 100 rating from the Human Rights Campaign.
Case in Point: Denny’s Turnaround
One organization that seems to have repented is Denny’s restaurants. It’s a story of transformation from an embodiment of corporate racism to a model of workplace diversity.
Denny’s faced accusations and lawsuits for racial discrimination at several of its restaurants during the 1990s. One of the most notorious cases involved 21 members of the Secret Service in 1994. While 15 white agents were served quickly, a waitress and manager delayed serving six black agents for nearly an hour, allowing their food to get cold.
The ensuing publicity highlighted a series of lawsuits for similar acts of discrimination at other Denny’s restaurants: Asian American students at Syracuse University refused service and beaten by customers; Muslim customers in Montana served pork after asking for a vegetarian menu; Hispanic customers in San Jose refused service; a blind woman refused service because she was accompanied by a service dog; men of Middle Eastern descent kicked out of a restaurant in South Florida.
Denny’s eventually paid $54 million in legal settlements. The company’s chief diversity officer later looked back on that “historic low point” in the Denny’s history as presenting “huge opportunities. We had no place to go but up.”
Dramatically from a public relations perspective, the company seems to have embraced the concept of corporate repentance. It adopted an aggressive anti-discrimination policy that included hiring minority managers, training employees, and firing those who discriminated. Denny’s increased minority franchise ownership from one to 109 over a span of five years. Currently 46 percent of Denny’s 1,685 franchises are minority-owned. The company reports 44 percent of its management and 45 percent of its corporate directors as minorities and/or women. It purchases goods worth more than $100 million a year from minority vendors.
Denny’s launched a $2 million anti-discrimination advertising series. It gives proceeds from some sales to the King Center in Atlanta. It has supported the National Civil Rights Museum and scholarships for Wilberforce University, a historically black college. The company has worked with the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility and the NAACP. It gave more than $1.5 million to civil rights groups and the United Negro College Fund.
The result of this turnaround is that Denny’s and its parent company ranked No. 1 in Fortune magazine’s listing of best companies for minorities, two years running. It received similar awards from Black Enterprise, Essence, Asian Enterprise, and Hispanic Business magazines.
So successful is its commitment to diversity, some white nativist organizations now are calling for boycotts because Denny’s has become too multicultural.
Denny’s certainly isn’t the only company with such problems, and with 1,600 franchises throughout the US incidents are bound to occur. But every time an allegation of discrimination is reported, the news media repeats the litany of past complaints against the company, while commentators and customers weigh the sincerity of Denny’s protestations that it has repented of such sins and adopted new policies and training programs to prevent their repetition.
The final category of public relations responses involves deliberate inaction, the considered decision by an organization under siege to offer no substantive comment though perhaps to quietly take some action (strategic silence), to respond vaguely and indistinctly (strategic ambiguity), or to say and do nothing and let the problem blow over (strategic inaction).
23. Strategic Silence
Occasionally the decision to remain nonresponsive—that is, strategic silence—is an appropriate public relations response. The strategy involves patience and composure. By not responding to criticism, an organization may be able to shorten the life span of a crisis situation.
Strategic silence can work when publics accept that an organization is remaining silent not out of guilt or embarrassment but because it is motivated by higher intentions such as compassion for victims, respect for privacy or other noble considerations, or simply because it is working on the problem and refuses to get sidetracked into talking much about it.
The biotech company Senomyx adopted a let-it-ride nonresponse when it was accused of conducting research using tissue a stem cell line obtained from an embryo aborted in the 1970s. The line is commonly used in research by pharmaceuticals, the food and perfume industries, and medical research.
When the company simply ignored letters from the protest group Children of God for Life, the protesters called for boycotts against Kraft, Pepsi, Campbell Soup, Nestle, and other companies for which Senomyx tested flavor enhancers. In response, Nestle asserted that the cell line is well established in scientific research. Campbell merely said it values the customers’ trust. Pepsi affirmed its commitment to ethical product development, and a year later, announced it was no longer using that cell line research. Through the entire yearlong controversy, Senomyx steadfastly remained silent toward the protesters.
Maintaining strategic silence doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing is happening. When cancer-causing benzene was discovered in bottled water produced by Perrier, the upscale European company said nothing. Its chairman refused to hold a news conference or give interviews. Such silence, though frustrating for the media, prevented the company from appearing to be under siege. Meanwhile, Perrier pulled millions of bottles from store shelves and replaced them with water without the benzene. By correcting the problem quietly, Perrier fostered a successful survival of the crisis.
This concept of strategic silence sometimes is given the name purdah (an Arabic reference to the veil or protective screen used in the practice of social isolation of women in some Islamic and Hindu societies).
In some circumstances, the law requires organizations to maintain silence, at least on particulars. If so, this requirement should be explained by the organization as the reason for its silence. For example, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents universities from providing details about students’ academic records. Similarly, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets national standards to ensure the privacy of medical records and other personal health information.
When considering strategic silence, however, remember that the response is likely to be accepted only by those publics that already trust the integrity of the organization. Opponents will find plenty of ammunition in the lack of response.
Silence also risks allowing negative statements to stand unchallenged, which could hurt the organization in the long run. Additionally, a policy of strategic silence may be difficult to maintain if a strong opponent is able to insist on a public response. Remember that silence can imply indifference not only to an opponent but also to the issue itself. An issue might be of real interest to some of an organization’s key publics. By dismissing it, the organization risks slighting anyone who feels the issue is worthy of response.
Bill Cosby initially opted for silence in the face of mounting sex-abuse allegations that destroyed his reputation, apparently on his belief or legal advice that nothing he might say would lessen the reputational damage already done. But remaining silent often isn’t realistic in the long run. However, eventually Cosby’s lawyers had to address the allegations.
Strategic silence is not the same as saying “No comment.” Such a statement invariably is interpreted as an acknowledgment of guilt, implying that the organization not only did something wrong but did it so ineptly or so blatantly that it can’t think of any explanation that would be accepted by its publics. Avoid “no comment” responses and related disdainful statements such as “we won’t dignify that accusation with a reply.”
24. Strategic Ambiguity
Similar to the concept of strategic silence is strategic ambiguity, the refusal to be pinned down to a particular response. Often this involves the artful dodging of a question. In an ideal world, ethical decisions would be simple and clear-cut. But the world isn’t an ideal place, so be prepared to carefully discern among competing loyalties and differing values.
Politicians use strategic ambiguity frequently so they can avoid taking a public stand or tipping their hand about future potentials. U.S. diplomats, for example, have for decades been deliberately vague about what action might be taken if China moves to forcibly implement its claim that Taiwan is part of China and not an independent nation. Washington and Beijing exchange ambassadors, while the US maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan. The State Department uses terms such as “acknowledging” rather than “recognizing” a single Chinese political entity, and diplomats “take note of” rather than “support” Beijing’s claim to be the legitimate government for all of China.
Corporate leaders use the device of strategic ambiguity to avoid negotiating in public and to maintain their options. Much of the literature of crisis communication suggests that companies can minimize fallout by avoiding quick responses to stakeholder demands.
When a Rolls-Royce engine failed, a Quantas Airlines jumbo jet had to make an emergency landing in Singapore. The company gave no interviews, nor did it make any public comment for the media. Instead, it posted at its website an explanation of sorts for all to read, full of engineer-geek talk that the media found difficult to include in their reporting.
When Paula Deen used racist slurs, The Food Network said it supports diversity and would monitor the situation. Then, without any formal announcement, TFN acknowledged that it would let her contract expire. Quiet monitoring, a minimalist statement, then silence. This approach requires companies willing to be patient and to resist the temptation to over-comment.
Clearly there is an ethical dimension to the concept of strategic ambiguity. At what point does ambiguity become obfuscation? Under what circumstances, if any, is it ethical to answer a direct question with a deliberately evasive response? In the hierarchy of organizational objectives, does transparency trump ambiguity? How long can credibility be maintained when underlings have to explain away the language of the boss?
25. Strategic Inaction
A final category of the deliberate inaction strategy is strategic inaction, making no statement and taking no overt action. Instead, the organization simply waits it out and allows the situation to fade.
Strategic inaction may be a useful strategy if the stakes are not too high. But be forewarned: Some problems do not fade away, especially those fanned by the opposition. By doing nothing, an organization risks allowing the problem to grow.
In considering this strategy, ask a few questions. Why would an organization choose not to act publicly, especially in a crisis situation? When would a public official or celebrity under siege think that doing nothing is a reasonable response to criticism?
After releasing his birth certificate, President Obama ignored the continuing criticism of “birthers,” including several prominent politicians, bloggers, and pundits. In the same vein, he steadfastly ignored provocative accusations about his patriotism and his religious beliefs. Such inaction stems from the twin conclusions that supporters have already been satisfied with information they have been given and that critics will never be satisfied with any response.
Sometimes the decision for strategic inaction is based on a cost-benefit analysis. This was the case when the Caterpillar corporation was accused of assisting the Israeli government’s occupation of the West Bank because it has sold bulldozers to Israel. Some pro-Palestinian critics called for a boycott to investing in the company. Caterpillar basically ignored the criticism, apparently concluding that the economic downside of any boycott would not be significant to its financial bottom line.
Some cases support the notion that strategic inaction can shorten the lifespan of crisis. Often this is linked to the consider-the-source principle. When criticism comes from only a small source, especially one with low credibility, it may be safe to minimize response to such critics.
Social media should be considered in any corporate decision to employ strategic inaction. The ubiquity of social media has increased pressure on organizations and public individuals to respond to criticism. A few critics can hijack social media venues to give a public platform for their accusations, which may call for an organizational response. On the other hand, some online critics reveal themselves as so outrageous and ill spoken that they render themselves as noncredible sources.
Look back over the list of reactive public relations strategies. So many possibilities. How can an organization choose among all the options?
Research may play a role, as public relations practitioners consider some likely options and then put them to the test, perhaps by using focus groups, case studies, and other forms of research. Experience also plays a role, as practitioners draw on their knowledge of what has worked (or not worked) for them in the past.
Consider the situation faced by Network Ten, one of the major networks in Australia known for some edgy programming. In 2012, the network commissioned a reality series called “The Shire,” branded as Australia’s version of the U.S. series “Jersey Shore” and the U.K. version “The Geordie Shore.” Immediately the planned series captured popular attention.
A promo video was leaked, showing scenes about breast implants, domestic violence, and wannabe porn stars. This created what some residents of Sutherland Shire saw as a negative impression of the Sydney-area community where the show was set. The mayor had “a heated meeting” with the network executive. The Shire council tried to ban producers from filming on area parks and beaches. A member of parliament planned to meet with the network bosses. Network Ten faced several various options in reacting to the rogue (and by then, viral) promo video.
• Strategic silence. It simply could ignore the video, not draw more attention to it, and hope the controversy would die out.
• Denial. It could use a strategy of defensive response. The network’s contention was that the promo video was nothing like its series. It might prove this by releasing an authorized video trailer of “The Shire,” inviting audiences to see for themselves that the leaked version was a flawed comparison.
• Reversal. Network Ten could accept the leaked video as a compliment and light-heartedly play along with the interest it was generating.
• Threat. The network could use an offensive response strategy by threatening the bloggers with legal action if they did not take the video down.
• Attack. The network could actually make good on its threat and try to attack the messenger by forcing bloggers who posted the video to take it down.
Network Ten chose a combination of threat and attack. After threatening a blogger who had posted the video, the network filed a copyright claim. Not surprisingly, these steps created even more attention. The network eventually forced YouTube to temporarily remove the video—but not before it had attracted 30,000 viewers in the first two days. The video later returned to several different video-sharing sites, and the number of viewers jumped to six digits.
The strategy of offensive response—and the inept handling if the network really wished to minimize publicity—prompted media critics to suggest that Network Ten purposely “leaked” the video to evoke a controversy and draw attention to the planned series.
Regardless of its motivation, the strategy of attack was seen as an example of the Streisand effect, which refers to the unintended consequence of fueling publicity by trying to have something censored. The Streisand effect is the backfiring of efforts to remove information, especially photos and videos disseminated over the Internet. The term stems from entertainer Barbra Streisand’s 2003 attempt to ban photos of her home—just one of 12,000 photos of California coastal erosion—from being displayed at an environmental website. The entertainer’s $50 million lawsuit, which eventually was dismissed, created additional publicity. Before the lawsuit was filed, only six people had viewed the photo (two of them Streisand’s attorneys). But publicity about the lawsuit drove half a million visitors to view the website photos, creating a boon for the environmental group.
Other celebrities have had similar experiences. Tom Cruise unsuccessfully attempted in 2008 to force YouTube to remove a video interview of him talking about his Church of Scientology, only to boost its popularity among viewers.
In 2009, Glenn Beck tried to shut down a satirical website raising the question of whether he had raped and murdered a girl, a question that parodied Beck’s own interview style posing outrageous assertions to guests on his TV commentary. Beck lost the legal battle, but not before driving viewers to the social media sites posting the video and even attracting coverage by mainstream news media.
Corporations also have experienced the Streisand effect, such as when McDonald’s sued two activists for passing out disparaging fliers at one London restaurant in 1990. Instead of having only a few hundred patrons exposed to the criticism, McDonald’s launched a lawsuit that endured for 15 years, including a 2½-year-long libel trial, cost millions in legal fees, and drew international media attention as the McLibel case before it was finally settled. McDonald’s lost. When Fox Television sued Al Franken in 2003 claiming copyright infringement over the title of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, the book shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list.