Crisis response = minutes, not hours

Crisis communication response times are now measured in minutes, not hours (certainly not weeks)

In the media training I helped lead last week we discussed the slow response of certain business leaders in the wake of crises affecting their brands. With social media, what once was just a little slow would today be considered glacial. 

One case study we discussed was the emergency landing by Captain “Sully” of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River a little more than a year ago.  The successful emergency landing on the river, famously captured on a cell phone camera, occurred at 3:30 p.m.  The evacuation onto the wings of the Airbus A320 happened quickly, and within minutes nearby commercial ferries were taking on the passengers. Capt. Sully, who first walked through the plane twice to ensure all passengers had been evacuated, emerged as America’s newest hero.

At 4:55 p.m., fire crews began to stand down.  All the cable news channels had extensively covered the situation. Many interviews of experts and witnesses and analysts had been conducted. By that time, there was little that the American public didn’t know about what had happened. A jet airliner landing on the river in NYC?! Post 9/11, the media are super-prepared to be all over a situation like this.

At 5:07 p.m., US Airways CEO Doug Parker issued a statement during a news conference at the airline’s headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, confirmed that there had been an accident. He didn’t really say much more than that.  He didn’t use the opportunity to praise Captain Sully, with whom he had already spoken on the phone.  He didn’t say, “We’re thrilled that the expertise of our flight staff prevented this from being a much more dire situation.”  After all, all 155 occupants of the ditched jet survived!  By the time he stood at the podium, he knew his airline had just been presented the biggest gift ever — an accident that couldn’t be avoided, but only minor injuries and some property loss.

Now, 90 minutes isn’t that much time, especially if a number of meetings and discussions had to occur before the hastily assembled news conference.  That said, more information needed to come from Mr. Parker and, more important, some emotion. People know that some accidents are going to happen and are unavoidable. But, people want to see a human reaction to crises … not some “don’t-say-too-much-for-fear-of-lawsuit” statement.

For weeks, the crisis at Toyota has been building.  A little less sensational, but affecting many more people. Quality issues have now resulted in the recall of 9 million cars worldwide. Again, people don’t expect mechanical things to be perfect, but they do expect the manufacturers of mechanical things to not only fix the problem, but to publicly acknowledge the errors and demonstrate some *human* remorse.  Not just a statement. Not just a policy. Not just a fix.  They want to see real people saying real things about real situations.

Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda (grandson of company founder), was part of a hastily arranged news conference Friday night (earlier today) and apologized, taking personal responsibility for the problems. “I deeply regret that I caused concern among so many people,” he said. “We will do our utmost to regain the trust of our customers.”  He acknowledged this is a crisis (Really? You didn’t know that earlier?) and he also apologized to shareholders for the 20% drop in company stock.

That he is apologizing and taking this seriously is great.  That it’s happening a few weeks after the news first broke is not so great.  And while I believe shareholders are indeed an important audience, an apology to them should be done through a shareholder-only communication. Doing so in the news conference only indicates that the only reason Mr. Toyoda is up there is because the crisis is affecting financials, rather than the fact that his faulty cars are affecting people.

I appreciate good brakes. This morning, while I was taking a left out of a parking lot, some oncoming cars were stopped to allow me through.  Little did I know, however, that another car was barreling down the left turn lane.  The driver/cell phone talker, however, did have good enough sense and brakes to come to a skidding stop as I inched across the lane. Thank you for good brakes to unknown car maker (I don’t remember what make of car it was … it could have been a Toyota!).  

I want Toyota to say, “We’re sorry that a faulty process has led to this. We will do our utmost to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to make sure every Toyota owner has complete confidence in their car’s mechanical abilities!” I don’t own a Toyota personally, but I believe I drive next to many of them every day. 

And I want them to say these things early in the game and not weeks later when their stock is crashing. That’s all I want.

Author: Robin

Communications professional with more than 25 years' expertise in PR, crisis communications, social media, community relations, marketing communications and more!

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