PR Crisis Case Studies in Real Time

Open any public relations textbook and the section on crisis management will include examples of how organisations have demonstrated “best” or “worst” practice. And, it’s not just the textbooks, as recent incidents (eg Tiger Woods or Toyota) have seen plenty of advice from PR “experts” through online and social media. But, just as with the dead tree versions, these case studies are simplistic fictions. Heroes and villains are the main narrative, with a modernist approach reinforcing a recommended crisis management strategy.
There’s just one way to communicate during a crisis – regardless of the organisation, the situation, the social context or the significance of the incident. This is the Tylenol way – presented as the right approach thanks to the swift action taken by Johnson & Johnson. The reality (as previously clarified at PR Conversations as a misleading myth) isn’t allowed to get in the way of the lesson. After all, it promotes a way that PR, and organisational management, can be in control and preserve reputation through a few simple steps.
Every case study reinforces the mantra – Exxon Valdez is presented as the epitome of poor crisis management; too slow to respond. Likewise Coca Cola and the Belgium “mass hysteria” case. Whilst the Pepsi “needle in a can” crisis is hailed, Perrier’s benzene example is criticised. The nature of textbooks is that authors synthesise cases into easy to understand advice that students can repeat in assignments, and practitioners can recall if they ever find themselves handling a crisis. It’s a comfort blanket of how to…, what not to do…, common mistakes and miracle cures.

In the social media world of 24:7 global connections, the right way is repeated – only at warp speed. Tell it fast becomes tell it before you know anything. Tell it all means let the media and its rent-a-quote experts speculate about worst case scenarios. Be open – means unlimited social media engagement (regardless of what the legal or other ramifications may be). Have the CEO (or celebrity if a personal faux pas has occurred) lead communications with mandatory appearances on chatshows, a tour of news stations, and a YouTube apology.
Mea culpa – the universal panacea: “I’m sorry if…” – anyone resisting the calls is bullied until they comply. The pound of flesh must be paid. They have to apologise publicly even if what’s occurred is a matter of private relations or affects only a few people – who could be communicated with directly, where contrition would be far more sincere and genuine. Everyone is a critic – retweeting endlessly, without checking the veracity of any source. Citizen journalism enables individual examples to be retold and extrapolated, without any attempt at verification if used by journalists and treated as absolute fact by social media networks.
Crisis case studies in real time seem little different to those that have been carefully crafted for retelling in the textbooks. There is little evidence of the public relations profession reflecting or considering how cases could be handled differently in a post-modernist, complex and chaotic world. A few authors, such as Dawn Gilpin and Priscilla Murphy (Crisis Communications in a Complex World), challenge the simplification of turbulent reality.
Isn’t it time that their views were at least presented alongside the “only way” propaganda that is taught on PR courses and espoused in both academic and practitioner texts? And even more important – shouldn’t more of us be speaking out against those PR and media experts influencing public and client expectations with naive views based on an unrealistic belief that all crisis situations can be easily managed and controlled? Let’s have more real life PR case studies that actually reflect the real time nature of managing contemporary crises. And we all might learn something new.

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