In 2021, anything from a data breach to embarrassing social media mishaps can quickly send a company’s image through the wringer — and not always just momentarily. As I wrote recently in Entrepreneur Magazine, with today’s social media landscape, an outcry from the public can be fast and fierce, necessitating a strategic crisis management plan that will take a disastrous story and turn it into one with a more palatable outcome. It’s also important to note that there are spectrums to crisis management, and sometimes a smaller-scale response will suffice. Either way, it’s imperative to first develop a full view of a situation before reacting to it.
To help demonstrate the right way to navigate a crisis, here are three examples where leaders took the reins and navigated their brands through PR fiascos like true champions.
Virgin Galactic 2014 Crash
The Situation: In October of 2014, VSS Enterprise, an experimental spaceflight, ended in tragedy after crashing, killing the pilot, and seriously injuring the co-pilot. The crash occurred on the heels of a rocket explosion at NASA’s Virginia facility just three days earlier, bringing even more attention to the dangers associated with space exploration.
The Response: Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Galactic) swiftly jumped into action, first with a tweet expressing his condolences to the families of the pilots and “vowing to do everything possible” to support them. He then posted a longer message on his blog later that evening again paying tribute to the pilots, while also showing his commitment to space exploration and clearly acknowledging its hardships. Next, Branson visited the crash site in the Mojave Desert the same day as the crash, pledging full cooperation with the NTSB. He was not shy when it came to discussing the crash investigation with multiple media outlets, holding a press conference the next day, and even appearing on the Today show the following Monday.
What Leaders Can Learn From It:
Branson faced the crisis directly and did not bury his head in the sand hoping that it would go away. He was completely transparent and immediately showed genuine empathy for the pilots and everyone affected. His open and public communication style reflected both his own personal values as well as the values of his company — which has undoubtedly gained him support and reinforcement of stakeholder confidence.
Here are two main takeaways from this example of exemplary crisis management:
- Respond Fast & Frequently
Branson’s tweet came out within hours of the crash, and he went on to also address it both on his blog and in the press for weeks thereafter. PR stalling rarely goes over well with the public. While it’s crucial to gather the necessary facts before communicating to the public, it’s equally as important to create your own press, or you run the risk of the public and media outlets creating a narrative for you.
- Show That You’re Human
In times of tragedy, people instinctively stand together. Branson continued to issue several heartfelt responses regarding the incident, demonstrating strength during a very adverse situation as well as genuine empathy.
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Zion Williamson & Nike’s “Shoegate”
The Situation: NBA player Zion Williams, a freshman college player at the time, suffered a knee sprain during a game when his Nike basketball shoe infamously ripped wide open. Within minutes, Twitter was set afire with hundreds of memes and jokes from fans as well as Nike shoe competitors. Nike’s stock even fell by 1.8% on the next trading day.
The Response: Nike’s response to the crisis was both measured and tactful. First, the brand issued an immediate release expressing an appropriate level of concern for Williamson’s wellbeing. Next, it made sure to note that the failure was an isolated incident and not one synonymous with the brand’s long-standing image as a major manufacturer in the world of pro sports. Nike then met with officials at Duke to get a better understanding of what caused the blowout. Lastly, the brand flew executives to China to oversee manufacturing as a stronger shoe was custom-made for and then gifted to Williamson (which he later raved about to reporters).
What Leaders Can Learn From It:
The shoe giant acted as any brand should when the quality or integrity of their products is in question — they stood by it. They ignored the mounds of public ridicule that littered social media and focused on Williamson, ultimately remedying the situation and taking full responsibility. This serves as an important lesson for businesses trying to navigate the social media space. Don’t become distracted by social media fodder, stand by your products, and never stray too far off-brand in the event of a PR crisis. Nike’s messaging during the fiasco was a great example of how to separate a brand from an individual product. After all, no one really expected Nike’s entire empire to crumble just because one pair of tennis shoes malfunctioned.
Elon Musk vs Tesla Short-Sellers
The Situation: Since its IPO in 2010, Tesla’s stock market value has been relatively volatile. As a result, it’s also been a bit of a gold mine for stock short-sellers and, consequently, fair game for journalists covering the market. Bothered by this stock market practice, Musk taunted short-sellers in 2018, stating that he’d sell “short-shorts” to anyone who bet against the company’s success.
The Response: In 2020, when Tesla shares finished the trading day on a high note, officially making Tesla the most valuable carmaker in the world, Musk made good on this promise as red satin shorts were listed on Tesla’s site for $69.42, adding that the shorts provided “exceptional comfort from the closing bell.” The shorts sold out in minutes, even breaking the brand’s website. His tweets received over 88,000 likes and garnered over 100,000 engagements before the day ended.
What Leaders Can Learn From It:
Musk has worked to set up brilliant ways to stay in touch with Tesla’s global audience as well as his own personal brand audience. By imbuing unwavering confidence in his company, he was able to counter negative press by injecting humor and creativity. Continuous bad press can slowly eat away at a brand, and Musk’s social media activities and communications illustrate how to have the loudest voice when it comes to your brand. His “short-shorts” launch is a great example of how to launch a counter PR campaign.
The truth is, most businesses will face a PR crisis at some point during their operation. When a problem arises, it’s best to be prepared and respond openly and honestly. Having a crisis management plan in place can help your organization address unexpected PR crises quickly and effectively, so that your brand doesn’t just survive the crisis — it comes out even stronger than before.