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Aug. 28, 2017

En Garde: In a communication crisis, understand the need for speed

Today’s consumer will not hesitate to point out a company’s failing when he or she feels affronted. Social media gives companies nowhere to hide. Combine this with the belief by a growing number of consumers, particularly millennials, who want companies to take a stand on important issues of the day, and it’s the recipe for constant threats to your reputation.

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Business leaders understand the need to be prepared to respond to communication issues ranging from internal misbehavior to customer service failures which can damage a company’s priceless reputation.
Due to a perfect storm fueled by contentious politics, social injustice, and an explosion of social media, we now have an environment where an unrelated event thousands of miles away can create a firestorm of indignation toward a brand name.
Three national brands were forced to respond to inadvertent visibility created by recent white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. All three companies said the right things, but not all three came out unscathed.
Torches have been used as a symbol of intimidation since antiquity. When the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the wake of the Civil War, carrying torches became an identifying feature of the movement.
When Charlottesville protestors carried Tiki torches readily available at their suburban big box stores, the Tiki brand manufacturer found itself thrust into the conversation. It took action within hours on its social media platforms, disavowing any connection and reinforcing its opposition:
“TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed. We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”
In another potentially damaging juxtaposition, the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings were forced to respond when its fans wondered why so many white nationalists were wearing the team’s famous logo, a winged spoke wheel.
Michigan anti-immigration nationalists calling themselves the “Detroit Right Wings” made slight modifications and used the logo for its organization. The Red Wings team had to issue a statement making it clear it had no connection with the group or events in Charlottesville. The NHL backed up the Red Wings with its own statement. Neither Tiki or Major League Hockey took any major hits.
Dodge and Fiat Chrysler weren’t as fortunate.
When Virginia resident Heather Heyer was killed and 20 others were injured by a white supremacist driving a Dodge Challenger, Dodge found itself caught up in the aftermath when a regularly sponsored event seemed to make light of the situation.
Dodge sponsored the “Roadkill Nights” drag race event in Detroit, Michigan, a popular muscle car showcase held by The Enthusiast Network. Dodge featured its participation on its social media channels. By sheer coincidence, it took place on the same weekend as the Charlottesville rallies.
Dodge caught serious backlash celebrating its muscle car power with the hashtag #Roadkill while failing to acknowledge the situation in Virginia throughout the weekend.
Where Tiki and the Detroit Red Wings emerged unhurt due to their swift and certain public responses, Dodge didn’t react quickly enough. It wasn’t until Bloomberg News contacted Fiat Chrysler for a comment that a statement was issued via email, which said “It’s unfortunate that such a pure, safe, family friendly automotive event was linked to such a senseless, horrific act.” It was seen as too little, too late.
For a company as large and as visible as Fiat Chrysler to be caught flat-footed by the juxtaposition of events is inexcusable in today’s world. Could it have anticipated the exact circumstances? No, but every company must be prepared for the context of its brand to be affected by outside forces.
It’s a matter if when, and not if, a public communication crisis hits your business. Companies that haven’t anticipated the need for a crisis plan emphasizing speed and responsiveness will suffer the consequences, sometimes at great cost.
Today’s consumer will not hesitate to point out a company’s failing when he or she feels affronted. Social media gives companies nowhere to hide. Combine this with the belief by a growing number of consumers, particularly millennials, who want companies to take a stand on important issues of the day, and it’s the recipe for constant threats to your reputation.
The only way to prevent serious harm is to be prepared well in advance to respond. Working with experienced crisis communicators who can explore possible scenarios and help construct a smart, swift response is no longer a luxury.

If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, consider working with an experienced independent consultant who can assess your readiness and suggest solutions, help you put a plan into place, and then work with you on any needed training including simulations and drills. With this infrastructure in place, you can be ready for timely execution when called upon.
If this seems like overkill, imagine becoming the next Volkswagen, United Airlines, or PriceWaterhouse Coopers.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a veteran strategic communication and crisis response consultant. She is the president of the Falcon Valley Group based in San Diego, California Connect with Gayle on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/falconvalleygroup/

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