Three Basic Rules for Crisis Communications in Manufacturing and Agriculture

Bettison Crisis Communications Negative Publicity

No one likes to plan for them, but crises are a fact of life. Mistakes are made. Accidents happen. In almost industry, the worse case scenario crisis involves the loss of life.

At BETTISON, our practice focus is on helping manufacturing and agriculture industries in high-stakes public relations: everything from crisis, issues management, workplace safety, product recalls, to customer relations, labor relations and corporate communications. What we have found in the years of helping manufacturers and agribusiness is that these two industries, in particular, have numerous aspects that touch on sensitive, and potentially crisis situations — including fatalities.

Manufacturing and agriculture industries face more challenges

Manufacturing and agriculture industries face more challenges and repercussions than other industries that flow from workplace accidents, and product and food safety. The very nature of the business, the processes involved to create the product, and the people required to do the work, means that there are greater risks for crises, especially those involving fatalities.

Manufacturing and agribusiness face many other critical issues: employee retention, recruitment, regulatory oversight and compliance, insurance. The first step in any crisis communications or issues management plan is to have a full understanding of the key risks and consequences.

Having a basic plan will help plan for responding, both in actions and in messages

Once the risks are fully understood and planned for, having prompt, thoughtful action and communication — both internal and external — in times of crises and critical issues is more important than ever. This is particularly true with strong and pervasive influence of social media. Having a plan will give you some control over how you respond to a crisis (i.e., what you do) deliver your message and protect your company’s reputation when critical matters arise.

The cost of negative perceptions

Negative public perceptions are like a tax – they cost the business in real dollars, good will and long-term success. They affect sales, employee relations, employee morale; they trigger greater government scrutiny and regulatory oversight; they create new legal risk.

Positive perceptions, on the other hand, bring in untold returns on investment. More customers, more sales, more high-quality employees, better public policy, better relationships all around.

What makes a reputation

There are three (3) elements to reputation that are impacted in any crisis or critical issue:

  1. Trust. Are the services, products, people, quality, safety, processes to be trusted?
  2. Credibility. Is the business an expert in what it offers? Are its services, products, people better than the competitor? Is what it says about its services, products, people to be believed?
  3. Integrity. Does the business do the right thing? Does it adhere to a moral code of conduct? Does it value the right things, treat people well and act responsibly.

Crisis Communications – Three Basics Rules To Follow

Below are three basic rules for manufacturing and agriculture businesses to consider when a crisis or other critical issue presents itself. These are designed to help get you started, and are by no means exhaustive of how you should manage a crisis. There are numerous considerations, but we offer this list to help you think through some of the most critical considerations at the outset:

FIRST: The truth shall set you free. The cardinal rule we all learned in kindergarten is the one that seems hardest to follow for some organizations – don’t lie. Cover-ups, half-truths and failing to disclose material information also come within this category. Covering-up information that otherwise should be shared is the most common transgression, and organizations learn this lesson the hard way—a problem is swept under the rug with the hope it will go away, only to surface later and be far more damaging.

Consider: Be careful on the amount of information disclosed. There is an additional challenge to disclosing unfavorable information—striking a balance between “Too much information” and “Too little information”. In an effort to be truthful and transparent, organizations will err on the side of sharing too much information, disclosing additional, irrelevant facts that only result in greater damage to reputation. In deciding what is to be disclosed and when, careful strategic objectives must be considered, as well as risk analyzed.

SECONDIt’s not about you; it’s about everyone around you. When Tony Hayward, CEO of British Petroleum, was interviewed days after one of the worst oil spills in world history had begun, he made the grave error of going off message and talking about himself and how the oil spill had affected him. His now infamous “I want my life back” (video below) illustrates the critical lesson a business must always remember—when some type of harm creates victims or potential victims, actions and messages must stay focused on the victims and what is being done to make things right.

Consider: Stay focused on those impacted by the crisis. The instinct for self-preservation will always kick-in during critical issue or crisis moments, and the focus naturally turns inward to the impact on those who must manage the problem. The challenge is this: leadership must stay focused on those who are directly or indirectly impacted by the issue (e.g., customers, investors, employees) while it is intensely focused internally to mitigate and remedy the problem. Those internal processes— which often include dealing with legal issues, regulators, investigations —must not be the focus of actions and messages unless it somehow relates to affected stakeholders.

THIRD: Apologize carefully, thoroughly. Knowing how, when and if to apologize is both an art and a science. When something has gone wrong, a carefully timed and crafted apology that reflects genuine remorse, regret and empathy can quickly make things right. Conversely, an apology can stir up dust and can create more reputational damage than had no apology been made in the first place.

Consider: Beware of the non-apology. Non-apologies such as “We are sorry if anyone was offended,” can do more reputational harm than the original problem caused. Passive apologies are also dangerous: “Mistakes were made,” suggests a lack of accountability and that there is still no one accepting responsibility.

Also consider: Offer a full, unequivocal apology when appropriate. Many times, concerns about harm to a reputation may take priority over concerns about liability. It’s more advantageous to sincerely apologize and attempt to move forward in restoring trust in your organization than to remain silent.

Finally, consider: Is an apology even necessary? Sometimes an organization – or even us as individuals — can bring more attention to a matter when an apology is offered but was, in fact, unnecessary. For example, when Netflix apologized for a rate increase, the apology was done so badly, missing the concerns of the customer (i.e. the price hike which Netflix apologized for but kept in place), that the apology itself ultimately became a total embarrassment for Netflix.

CONCLUSION: These three rules are just a start. But having a good understanding of how your business activities are perceived and understood by the public and key stakeholders is critical when facing a crsis. While social media has dramatically changed the public relations landscape and created new vulnerabilities that did not exist before, the rules for managing public relations challenges remain largely the same. Carefully considering and following three basic rules will help get an organization started on protecting its reputation.

If you have a difficult issue, please call us. We can help.