Lessons from the feel-good story of the year (part 2)

So if you're BP or Toyota, or some other company with a more run-of-the-mill crisis, you wonder how you can learn from the dramatic rescue story of the Chilean miners. The enduring memory is the sight of the plucky miners being hauled to safety, one-by-one in dramatic fashion–not the cause of the mine collapse, failures by the mining company or lack of proper oversight by the Chilean Ministry of Mining.

Meanwhile, you're sitting in the war room of your corporate offices on Day 72 of your Unending Crisis, flooded with media inquiries generated by the latest accusation of your toughest critic, the plaintiff attorney sharks working for the oh-so-benevolent-sounding "Center for Motherhood and Apple Pie." Why do the media continue to dredge the allegedly dark side of your corporation's past and ignore your latest new release highlighting your company's corp of volunteers or about the millions of customers who have used your product as intended (and without inflicting body harm on themselves or others)?

Simply put, how do you get media to emphasize the feel-good angles to the crisis response, and move past a fixation with the crisis itself or the blunders that led up to it?

Simple answer: You can't.

If people have died or been seriously injured in a crisis involving your product or company, that's the center of the story. Inevitable follow-up angles include: Where will it happen next? What short-cuts did the company take that led to the problem? And, of course: What did company officials know of the problems and when did they know it?

Think of BP's oil spill and the daily drone of stories showing the live-cam feed of the deep-sea well spewing oil into the gulf, while the company made one failed attempt after another to try to seal the well. DId coverage emphasize the heroic attempts to miraculously stop the high-pressure gusher on the ocean floor, or did the company come off as bumbling, inept and uncaring?

Companies in the grip of crisis must demonstrate sincere resolve to make things right as quickly as possible. As obvious as it may sound, making it right begins with ending the threat at the center of the crisis. As long as the well is spewing oil, or the gunman is still at large, media will focus on the continuing threat. In crises that involve product defects, companies often face continued criticism even after they've acted to fix the problem. Critics will insist that more products need to be recalled, or that the prescribed fix is not adequate (e.g., Toyota's continuing struggles with the allegations of unwanted sudden acceleration.) 

Only after the threat clearly has been extinguished might media begin to pay attention to the positive actions your company is taking to foster good will, and only after you've clearly gone above and beyond the expected remedies for your particular crisis. It sure helps to have a compelling human interest story, but it has to be authentic, not created in a ham-handed reach for sympathy. Media who have spent innumerable news cycles raking your company over the coals will be happy to expose actions taken purely for their "PR" value. Often it is best to step aside and let others talk about the unsung heroes in your crisis response.

– Jon Harmon

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