No Room for Speculation: Accuracy in Crisis PR is Vital

Treat a Crisis Seriously

Treating Your Crisis Seriously?

Posted by Erin Koch

One of the most vexing aspects of crisis communications is the need to overcome the natural human instinct to explain, justify, shift blame, or otherwise make sense out of the chaos that occurs when things go horribly awry. On Wednesday, Sept.2, news broke that a hot creative agency had released a tasteless advertisement exploiting fears and memories of 9-11. You can see the print ad here. A video version (which may not have been created by the company that made the original print ad) can be found here.

The World Wildlife Fund, the conservation group whose logo appears with the ads, immediately denied having ever approved the ad, placing full blame for the fiasco on its ad agency, DDB Brazil. Our initial reaction was that this was good crisis management. It is always wise to get out in front of a story and quash rumors that might harm an organization’s reputation. Then on Thursday, Sept. 3, various media reported that the WWF may, in fact, have approved the ad. And it had even appeared in a small Brazilian publication. A second statement released by the WWF makes this clear:

WWF Brazil has subsequently issued statements that have raised doubts about whether the ad concept was approved at some level within the WWF Brazil organization.

Thus WWF now finds itself in an even tougher crisis communications quandary: the appearance that they either did not do their due diligence in investigating the genesis of the ad, or (worse) intentionally tried to cover-up their responsibility for the ad. A comment at the end of an AdWeek blog post on the crisis sums up WWF’s new communications problem quite succinctly:

  • So, what’s worse? This disgusting and insulting ad being produced or the fact that differing branches of the WWF have no knowledge of what the others do, let alone any institutional control over the entity as a whole.
  • Way to set conservationism back 10 years. Maybe you should stick to actually helping protect the planet versus trying to use advertising to convince people “it’s powerful” … um, duh.

On the first day of the crisis, somewhere, someone at WWF headquarters asked the question: Did we approve this ad? And the answer they received (not surprisingly, given the high stakes involved) was a reassuring, “No, we did not.” But that question should have been asked again. And again. And then rephrased and asked a few more times, such as a very straightforward “well, then where did it come from and why does it have our logo on it?” Key WWF team members should have been given some time to search through their e-mail archives for the process of ad development and anything resembling an approval. Only then, should the conservation organization have gone public with a denial.

A few years ago, I was on the receiving end of the initial “we’d better call our PR firm about this” call for an angel of death healthcare crisis. A healthcare company had discovered that one of its employees had been injecting an unknown substance into its patients’ IV lines. You can read a bit more about the case here. I had to ask my first question literally five different times before I got a comprehensive answer: “Have you informed the rest of your patients about this?” I knew that absolute accuracy on this one point was crucial: every communication going forward would be focused on how … and how quickly, the company had reacted once it suspected the worst.

Lessons to be learned? In crisis communications, three things are crucially important: truth, accuracy and speed. In that order.

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