Crisis communications

Recently, BBC Two has being broadcasting repeats of the peerless sitcom Yes Minister.  The repeats began with the pilot episode which is notable for its opening titles which do not include the cartoons by Gerald Scarfe.

In the episode, the newly appointed Minister for Administrative Affairs, the Right Honourable Jim Hacker MP first meets his departmental officials, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley.  Hacker is amazed that in this first meeting, Bernard begins to outline his diary for the coming weeks.  How could the civil service know of the election outcome? How did they know he would become the Minister?

Bernard responds, “We knew there would be a minister, Minister”.  The point being that the civil service had prepared a range of contingency plans covering the most likely outcomes of both the election and the appointment of the cabinet.  It did not matter who was appointed as the departmental minister, a plan was ready whatever the outcome.

For twenty years, I worked in trading standards enforcement.  I therefore have significant experience of companies who failed to prepare contingency plans or to assess the potential outcomes of their actions.  Some of this was deliberate criminality but all too often the legislative breach was the result of a failure to recognise the dangers of things going wrong.  Another thing to note from my experience was the reputational damage caused by the offence and by the company’s communications with consumers.

An excellent example was the Hoover free flights promotion, which is now included in most marketing qualifications.  Hoover, the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, had presented a marketing offer to consumers:  buy a Hoover cleaner and receive a free British Airways flight.  The company made two rather large errors in the execution of the offer.  They failed to set a monetary limit on the value of the flight and they allowed consumers to book flights from any departure point to any destination; even if no flights actually existed between those two points or they were not airports where British Airways operated.

The offer was very popular but thousands of consumers were left disappointed as Hoover blankly refused to honour the offer.  The failure to provide the promised free flights was not treated as a criminal matter; although under the law as it now stands, it probably would be.  It was a civil breach of contract.  A group of consumers took a class action against Hoover which resulted in huge damages having to be paid by the company.

There was also significant reputational damage to the Hoover brand and it could be argued that Hoover’s problems allowed a gap in the market to develop which Dyson was able to exploit.

What was notable about the debacle was the lack of contingency planning by Hoover in case things went wrong with the offer.  Hoover also appeared ill-prepared for the consumer reaction to their errors and it was clear that they were not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes in the preparation of the marketing campaign.

The most prominent form of marketing communication is the promotion of a product to potential consumers.  However, marketers have a distinct role, predominantly through the use of public relations, in the management of crises.

In consumer protection legislation, there are often statutory requirements for contingency planning.  For example most product safety and food regulation requires businesses to risk assess their products and have a prepared plan for corrective action if things go wrong e.g. product recall.  Government issues guidance on appropriate communications to consumers in such circumstances.

There are two approaches to planning crisis communications in other circumstances:

  1.  A reactionary approach – where you only respond to a crisis once it has happened; or,
  2. A planned approach – where you have a prepared plan of action for the most likely course of events if things go wrong.

Of course, not every crisis can be planned for.  I doubt the management of H Samuel were prepared for the speech by Gerald Ratner, their former Chairman, which boasted of the poor quality of their goods or that Iceland were prepared for their owner to state they did not test food for horse (in fact all food manufacturers should be checking that meat products do not contain meats adulterated by other species).  However, planning for the most likely consequences of a crisis can ensure your business remains viable, retains its reputation and doesn’t waste precious finances.

Any strategic marketing plan worth its salt should contain, at least in outline form, contingency plans just in case the reaction of consumers to your marketing activity doesn’t go as planned and if a crisis develops you can cope.