Crisis management is crucial for any company, organization or individual faced with an unexpected threat.
However, good crisis management is not developed on the heels of an unforeseen, surprise event. It is rooted in advanced and effective strategic planning. In the political world, putting a crisis management strategy in place is one of the first steps a candidate should take after announcing their candidacy. Even a candidate with no previous history of scandal can find themselves in unexpected trouble, no matter how professional and well thought out their campaign may be. Political blunders, or the possibility of an unforeseen controversy can never be entirely eliminated. More to the point, they can easily become destabilizing, if not properly managed.
In 2008, for example, when Barack Obama was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he made an off-the-cuff, disparaging comment about “small-town Americans”. A member of the public recorded his remarks, posted them online and Obama was forced to battle an ‘elitist’ tag for the rest of the campaign. Of course, he overcame this setback, but the allegation continued to follow him into office. Campaign trails are filled with similar stories of mishaps, which become a burden or even signal the end of even the most promising candidacies.
How to Handle a Crisis
If you want to know how to effectively handle a crisis, the commercial world provides plenty of examples. In 1982, the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson found themselves faced with a tragic crisis situation. An unknown individual had laced boxes of Tylenol capsules with potassium cyanide. Seven people died. J&J immediately pulled all Tylenol from the shelves, at a cost of $100 million, and halted marketing and advertising of the product. The company worked hand in hand with law enforcement agencies to locate the culprit, offered a generous reward to anyone who could divulge valuable information, and set up designated hotlines to field concerned calls from the public.
By taking quick and decisive action, and absorbing the financial cost even though the deadly damage was done after their product had reached the shelves, J&J delivered a clear and powerful message - Customer safety comes before profits. Several weeks later Tylenol was re-introduced into the market in triple-seal tamper-proof packaging. Today it continues to be a global leader in the pharmaceutical industry.
Crisis Management in a Digital World
While the Johnson & Johnson case is often used as a textbook example of excellent crisis management, it took place prior to the age of online communication and social media. In today’s virtual, instant world with all its ramifications, the outcome might have been different. In the 21st century, even the smallest, seemingly inconsequential misstep can become a full-blown PR nightmare within minutes. And so, in the political arena, a candidate’s misspoken word can spread like wildfire across the globe.
Crises have become an organic ingredient of corporate and political life. Today’s mantra is to expect the unexpected. And so, the key to a 21st century crisis is to be well prepared in advance. Meanwhile, the reaction must be rapid and well thought out. Inevitably, this means taking advantage of the speed and reach of digital communication.