Peak Communicators
October 9, 2015

Openness, Honesty and the Need for a Good Crisis Communications Plan: Volkswagen Scandal

It is hard to fathom that the world’s largest and most successful car manufacturer got caught red handed fudging its fuel economy certification information by altering software and hardware on 11 million diesel equipped cars.

The company only came clean on its deceptive practice of programming its cars to conform to emission standards only while being tested after U.S. authorities threatening to deny certifying 2016 models.

It is one thing for a company like General Motors to face a crisis like the faulty ignition switches that claimed multiple lives and cost the company $900 Million in fines. It’s quite another thing when a company creates its own crisis.

VW now faces fines up to $18 billion in the U.S. alone on top of multiple lawsuits. The company has withdrawn its affected diesel cars from sale here in Canada. Company management in Wolfsburg has warned employees of job cuts as the car sales nose dive and the company sets aside billions of Euros in a war chest.

The CEO of the company took days before he fell on his sword and resigned.

The company was slow to follow basic crisis management: Mess Up. Fess Up. Dress Up.

Key messages from the new CEO were week and predictable:

  • We are committed to fixing the problems ASAP
  • The affected vehicles are safe to drive
  • We are developing a remedy that will meet emissions standards

The world is watching the biggest automaker as it struggles with one of the biggest breaches of public confidence in automotive history.

Volkswagen’s fall from grace has been sudden and staggering. If the company has a crisis communications plan calling for timely and meaningful communications with the public, it has not been put into effective use.

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April 30, 2015

A Communication Failure Can Turn a Crisis into a Public Relations Catastrophe

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” is the famous line from the 1967 Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke.   It best sums up the Marathassa – Burrard Inlet oil spill and points to a critical failure we often see in a crisis. In planning for a crisis, organizations forget the importance of communication, not only in dealing with the crisis, but also when informing the public.  They plan how to deploy resources and deal with the crisis internally, while often forgetting what exists outside of their organization.

A timeline in the Globe and Mail  shows several communications failures that lead to delays in calling out cleanup and containment crews in the Marathassa spill.  Once deployed, the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) teams did an excellent job, cleaning up 80 per cent of the oil in 20 hours, but the communication delays turned what might have been a minor incident into a major event.  Those internal communication failures were then compounded by a failure to inform the City of Vancouver until 12 hours after the spill was first reported.  This turned it into a major story.

Rather than being praised for its response, the Coast Guard faced a storm of criticism for an inadequate response and cleanup effort.  The public was unhappy. Local politicians were unhappy.  The Provincial Government was unhappy.  This could not come at a worse time for proponents of expanded crude oil shipments out of the Port of Vancouver.  Oil spill prevention and a world-class response are central to gaining public support.  Public and political sentiment is that this was not world-class. Poor communications lead to a slow response, which let the crisis get out of hand.

The Coast Guard’s prime stakeholder in a crisis situation is not the Federal Government or Coast Guard management in Ottawa.  The Coast Guard’s number one stakeholder in a crisis is the public who they are charged with protecting and that includes local governments who represent all of us.  That stakeholder was forgotten.

So how do you avoid making the same mistakes in your crisis?  Here are seven things to think about:

1) Have a crisis communications plan. Crisis planning is not complete without a crisis communications plan. Who to call (or tweet), when to call (or post on Facebook), what to say, and how to best get your message out.  To be seen to be effectively responding, you have to tell someone about it

2) Alert your communications team right away. Don’t wait until the story is out of control—get the communications team working on the crisis from the outset.   Bringing in heavy hitters from Ottawa didn’t save the Coast Guard’s reputation, nor change the public perception of the crisis.  By then the story was written by the public, the media, and the critics.  The story was “clean up was a failure,” “world-class spill response was anything but” and “Coast Guard cuts made the problems worse.”

3) Prepare your statements in advance. Have fill-in-the-blanks templates for media advisories, statements and news releases for predicted events so you can get those out to the public quickly.  It should include social media channels and your website as well.

4) First out with the information controls the message. The first voices set the narrative, the tone of the story.  It’s your crisis so you know the most and you know first.  Use that to your advantage.  Become the source of accurate information.  Media and the public go to who can provide the best information.  In an information vacuum, they go to who screams the loudest.

5) Know who your stakeholders really are.  Make a list.  Make a list and have it as a key element of your crisis communications plan.  Who they are and how to reach them.  If the public isn’t on the list, they need to be there and the best way to reach them is through the media: both social media and traditional.

6) Define each potential crisis in advance. You should have a list of potential crises, each given a crisis rating based on seriousness and a planned response for each level of crisis.  That way in the heat of the moment you can just follow the plan and effectively manage crisis communications.

7) Exercise the plan often. The worst thing you can do is create a plan and never practice it.  If you regularly deal with minor events, get in the habit of pulling out the plan, assessing the seriousness and whether to call in the communications team.  It’s free practice! Follow the same steps until they become routine.  Use the templates mentioned above.  It should become second nature so when a major crisis happens you know what to do.  If you don’t have regular minor occurrences, then you need to do formal practice until you are confident in your ability in a crisis.

Look at the oil spill and relate it to a crisis your organization could face.  Would you do better or make the same mistakes? If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, or if you have a plan but don’t know how to use it or where it is or who to contact and how to do that, then expect bad news.  A crisis defines your organization.   Your response to a serious event is revealing.

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February 27, 2015

Sweating for the Wrong Reasons

Fans devoted to hot yoga typically embrace the heat, but in recent days Bikram’s founder Bikram Choudhury is sweating for a different reason. The famed guru is currently facing six U.S. civil lawsuits for rape or sexual assault. The latest legal case has been filed by a Vancouver woman who claims Choudhury sexually assaulted her while she was yoga training and working with him.

When a negative allegation is made, even if it’s eventually unproven or dismissed like in the case of John Furlong, the damage is done.  It takes years to build up a brand, but only seconds to have it shattered by slander or harmful rumours. There is much at stake for the reputation of Choudhury’s trademarked empire. With 650 yoga studios around the world including 29 in B.C., a breach of trust will have a detrimental impact on Choudhury along with the businesses that spent years building their individual success upon the multimillionaire’s personal brand.

This is where crisis management communications comes into play. Peak Partner Alyn Edwards was recently interviewed on CBC News to discuss what local Bikram franchises can do to confront the current reputation crisis. He also looks at the dangers of why it’s precarious to build a brand around a single person’s name. Unless you have an irreproachable reputation, it’s impossible to escape the burden of risk. Watch Alyn’s interview below for expert PR tips on what brands can do to mitigate the impact of a crisis. *Hint – it starts with having positive key messages and sticking to them.

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June 26, 2013

Peak Communicators Wins its First Award

The Peak Communicators team is celebrating this morning: it’s the first time we’ve entered a PR award, and we’ve won!

It’s for Ragan’s PR Daily Awards, which recognizes the best PR campaigns from across the globe.

We’ve been given the ‘Best Crisis Management Award’ for our work supporting a veterinary hospital in Vancouver.

The good news story focused on a dog named Rumble who had been shot during a home break in. The owner had spent $3,500 on treatment but an expensive operation was necessary. The Vancouver based veterinary hospital agreed to donate its services, and Peak capitalized on this from a media relations perspective. Peak worked to distance its client from a former employee who had been charged with a criminal act involving an animal; it also found a good-news story to promote just after the crisis had passed.

Province

This generated widespread positive publicity:

    • Led to more than $25,000 worth of public donations following the media coverage. This money was used to create a fund for other animals in need of care that would otherwise be euthanized
    • Created the highest website traffic to the veterinary hospital in 2012 during the week of Rumble’s surgery
    • Led to one concerned citizen knitting a dog jumper and then driving hundreds of kilometers to deliver it to Rumble at the veterinary hospital

We also received an ‘Honourable Mention’ for the ‘Best Fitness/Health Campaign’ for our work with Canadian Diabetes Association.

This is a great start to Peak’s second decade in business!

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May 16, 2013

Peak Announced as Finalists in 2013 Ragan PR Daily Awards

PR Daily Awards 2013Peak has been announced as finalists in the 2013 Ragan PR Daily Awards. Ragan’s awards are regarded as some of the most prestigious in the PR and communications industry worldwide. They recognize excellence in employee communications, corporate, nonprofit and agency PR and marketing, social media and digital PR, executive communications, health care PR and marketing.

The Ragan PR Daily Awards have received notable recognition throughout the industry and attracted respected PR firms from around the globe.  The team at Ragan has stated they are “blown away” by the number of exceptional entries put forward.

Given the volume of competition, Peak is delighted to be announced as finalists in three categories for the PR Daily Awards and the team highly anticipates the winner announcements in late June.

Peak has been declared finalists in the following two award categories, and our client, Avigilon, has been shortlisted as well;

Best Crisis Management – Traditional Media

  • For Canada West Veterinary Specialists (CWVS)

Best Fitness/Health Campaign – Community Relations/Special Campaigns

  • For the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA)

Best Client of the Year – Talent

  • For Avigilon

“We’re extremely happy with our achievements so far,” says Charlotte Sherry, Account Director at Peak Communicators. ”Our team of PR specialists has worked tirelessly over the past 12 months to deliver creative campaigns. We are delighted to have made the finalist list.”

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