We have come to expect safety seals on everything from medication to catsup. Safety seal technology was the result of the tragic 1982 “Tylenol tampering” incident in which seven people died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol. No suspect was ever charged in the heinous tampering crimes whose victims included a brand new mother. The incident fostered sweeping reform and safeguards in the packaging industry and is also famous in communication circles for Tylenol owner Johnson & Johnson’s stellar performance managing the communication crisis that followed. What could have marked the end of a brand instead became a benchmark for doing things right.
Johnson & Johnson immediately stepped up: The company recalled every product on store shelves. In a pre-Internet world, it opened its manufacturing plant to news media reporters to see how the product was made (tampering occurred after the products left the plant). And company executives offered sincere apologies to both the affected families and the nation.
While it is unlikely we local business owners and managers will ever face a catastrophe of this magnitude, our own day-to-day crises can be just as daunting. Consider a disgruntled former employee naming allegations against your company while you are helpless to comment due to privacy laws. What would you do if a key executive suddenly died and customer confidence was shaken? How do you handle an employee being arrested on the job for possessing child porn on a home computer? These are brutal challenges to any operation, and they demand immediate response.
These are emotionally charged circumstances that require smart responses. Yet it’s tough to be smart when you’re under attack. A few tips:
- Move quickly and with resolve. There is tremendous danger in shooting from the hip (or not shooting at all). Remain in control. Gather your thoughts. Call your attorney and, if needed, a communication consultant to help with simple key messages that will address the institution, even if you are limited to “the charges are completely untrue.” If you are contacted by a reporter, control the timing, speaking to him or her when you are ready.
- Make sure you keep people close to you informed. People in the throes of communications crises are often so focused on the external population they miss a critical piece: their own employees and board members. Do not overshare, but do give your employees the information they need to calm their own fears and help you manage the rumor mill.
- Take swift action. The immediacy of news coverage today and the fact that social media makes any person a channel means you have to react in a hurry. US Airways officials hosted a news conference within 30 minutes of their jet’s “Miracle on the Hudson” crash landing in 2009. That sounds impressive, but it was in fact simply too late. It took too long. Bystanders and anyone with a cell phone had captured the drama as it unfolded.