Crisis Control

Every brand’s gone through it. If yours hasn’t, it will sooner or later. I’m talking about a real brand crisis.

Let’s look at an obvious example. How’s the airline industry handling its current crisis? The Emirates’s site, until last week, replaced its home page with a document outlining the airline’s view on the war and its effects on the region.

Emirates may have weathered its crisis, but Hong Kong’s national carrier Cathay Pacific, voted the world’s best airline, is facing a crisis unlike anything the company’s encountered, according to its CEO. In contrast to Emirates’ outspoken response to a war-related crisis, Cathay’s home page does a very lackluster job defining current anxieties. Far from replacing the company’s home page with a full focus on SARS, Cathay Pacific’s site mentions the epidemic only incidentally.

Visit the Singapore Airlines Web site, and you’ll have trouble finding commentary on the SARS outbreak as well. You’ll have to look pretty hard to find a mention. Yet both Cathay and Singapore operate from regions among the most affected by the disease. Singapore Airlines was forced to ground over half its fleet, according to reports.

How should brands handle crises like SARS and military conflict? Crises that more often than not, are unpredictable and as life-threatening for the brands as for their customers? Who’s handled crises well in the past, and what can today’s brands learn from past experience?

Asian airlines could have taken a lesson from their American counterparts. Following the September 11 attacks, most U.S. carriers hastened to post updated travel information for travelers dealing with security issues at airports and early arrival times, even offering packing advice. Online travel company Orbitz maintains a Travel Watch page with updated security and health advisories for travelers.

In any crisis situation, transparency and accountability are key. No matter what the crisis, your customers need information that’s as swift, direct, and accurate as circumstances permit.

At some point, your company is likely to face a crisis. It may not be as dramatic as war or an epidemic, but it may be serious enough to jeopardize your brand’s well-being.

Do your brand a favor and consider what crises you could reasonably expect to encounter. It’s not an easy set of hypotheses to construct, considering unpredictability is an inherent element of crisis. Yet research shows up to 80 percent of crises can be predicted. Generic issues include product misuse, unhappy associations that result in PR damage, a database error allowing confidential data to be shared with the world, and a hacker intruding on your server and victimizing your customers.

Some years ago, Coca-Cola faced a crisis when hundreds of kids in Belgium were hospitalized by a chemical reaction in the drink. It was rumored the company CEO was in the country, but left Europe for Atlanta when the brand was in dire PR straits. His evacuation from the crisis nerve center left a vacuum. The press could only speculate on why this apparently arrogant departure occurred.

It took Coca-Cola close to four weeks to publish a small item of advice on what consumers should do if affected by the problem. That small item was practically hidden on the Belgian Web site. In the meantime, Coca-Cola was banned in three European countries and the share price plummeted.

Never get too comfortable. Don’t catch yourself thinking, “Thank heavens I’m not Cathay Pacific, Nike, or Coca-Cola,” or any of the other brands that have dealt with image crises. Any day now, you could get a panicked call from your boss, demanding you handle some terrible situation. Your response will determine the life or death of your brand.

Use the time you have now. That calm atmosphere you’re enjoying may mean you’re already in the eye of a storm. Keep an eye on all those companies around the world, the majority of them in fact, that are called upon to handle local crises in their own ways. And ask yourself, as a consumer, how you would feel about their crisis management. Wipe your brow and be once again thankful you are not in the hot seat — yet!

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