Three Lessons From a Career in Crisis [Management]

Way back in 2012, I was asked to give a presentation on crisis communications at National Agri-Marketing Association Boot Camp. They asked for my speech’s title for the program, and I came up with “Deformed Frogs, Oil Spills and Pink Slime: Lessons Learned from a Career in Crisis Management.” However, in attempting to fit the title of my presentation on the signage, someone had managed to leave off the last word. Thus, my presentation title became “Lessons Learned from a Career in Crisis.”

I found it funny at the time and used it as a self-deprecating joke at the beginning of my presentation. But as I reflect on my career, it seems appropriate. At times, it feels like mine has been a career in crisis!

I’ve learned a lot along the way, often by making mistakes. At this point in my career, I enjoy sharing those lessons. Here are my top three:

Lesson #1: Do the right thing.

As communications professionals, we know words matter. In crisis communications, actions are more important than words.

In the late 1990s, I helped Farmland Industries develop crisis plans for their beef, pork, grain, fertilizer and petroleum divisions. The first step in the process is to assess vulnerabilities: what’s possible, what’s probable, and what keeps you up at night? For the petroleum division, the worst-case scenario was an oil leak at their refinery in Coffeyville, Kansas.

Fast forward to a cold Friday night in November 1998. The call came at midnight (because crises never happen Monday to Friday between 9 and 5). Sheriff Jack Daniels – you can’t make this up – alerted the refinery to reports of oil in the river. Sure enough, a pipe carrying oil from the refinery to the tank farm on the other side of the Verdigris River had broken open, spilling oil directly into the water.

As crews went to work to stop the leak and contain the oil flowing toward Lake Oologah, the primary source of water for Tulsa, Okla., the communications team headed to the site. One of the issues we had identified during the vulnerabilities assessment was whether a spill in the river would impact water supply for any communities along the river. Sure enough, one town had to shut off their intake of water from the river: Nowata, Oklahoma. Like I said, you can’t make this up.

That day, as crews worked to clean up oil from the river, three TV crews from Tulsa were broadcasting live from Nowata. “There’s no water in Nowata tonight,” reported Donn Robertson of Tulsa KOTV’s News on Six.

The next morning, a convoy of tanker trucks, arranged by Farmland to pick up water in nearby Bartlesville, arrived in Nowata. Not because they had to, no regulation required it, but because it was the right thing to do.

That night, the news included pictures of clean water flowing into the Nowata city water tank. Over the weekend we emphasized our “do the right thing” message in every media interview. How long will this take? As long as it takes to do it right. How much will it cost? As much as it costs to do it right!

On the third day, Robertson reported from Nowata on “what a good job the company was doing to clean up” the oil spill. As part of the story, he interviewed a local PR professional, Steve Turnbo, who said, “Those companies who stand up and accept responsibility and say, ‘We’re going to deal with this. We made a mistake, and we’re trying to fix it,’ will win in the court of public opinion.”

Lesson #2. Shine a light on the problem.

Every crisis I have worked on comes down to three questions you must be able to answer: What did you know? When did you know it? What did you do about it at the time?

I worked on a beef recall in the summer of 2000 at Moyer Packing Company, then the largest beef packer on the East Coast. Moyer was a third-generation Mennonite family business. They were guided by strong values: produce a quality product, treat your people right and profits will follow. The key to sustainable success, they believed, was to reinvest those profits in their people and their product.

On a Friday in July, we were alerted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that their ground beef had tested “presumptive positive” for E. coli at a grocery store. According to regulations, they had to wait 48 hours for the confirming test to issue a recall. We wanted to act faster. Lives were on the line but USDA did not want to issue a public recall until the presumptive was confirmed. So, they sent their employees in their own vehicles to retrieve the product from store shelves.

They also immediately notified key customers, including a little Columbus, Ohio-based burger joint known for its square beef patties, about the impending recall. I’ll never forget the call we got from Wendy’s at the end of the week, saying they were going to increase their business because of how they handled the situation.

I call this the inoculation strategy. The last thing you want is for your customers to hear about your problem in the media. If you have a problem, shine a light on it and fix it. In my experience, how you act in a crisis reveals the true character of your company, for better or worse.

Lesson #3. Never lie or mislead. The truth will come out!

The summer after the Farmland oil spill, I was brought in to help the makers of Oxycontin to protect their reputation in the early days of the opioid crisis. According to the company, their “miracle drug” was being abused and disparaged. They had a point. Their drug was a miracle for people living in chronic, end of life pain. But the problem was not limited to intentional drug abuse.

Fresh off the success of the Farmland oil spill and Moyer recall, I confidently counseled the company to take responsibility for the problem and meaningful action to curb abuse of their product. They didn’t see that as their responsibility. Trapped in a common crisis victim mentality, they blamed drug abusers for their problem, ignoring the stories of people like the sheriff of a small town in West Virginia who became addicted to Oxy after back surgery and lost his job and family.

I counseled them to take steps to crack down of doctors prescribing Oxycontin for ankle sprains and other minor pains. Their response? That’s not our responsibility. The FDA indication is severe pain lasting more than several days. It’s up to the doctor to diagnose and prescribe, not the company.

After six months of pleading my case, with no acceptance of responsibility or tangible action to fix the problem, I convinced my firm to resign the account. My reasoning? They were not taking our counsel, and our reputation was now at stake.

As we all know now, the company knew their drug was highly addictive. They knew before hundreds of thousands became addicted and people lost their moms and dads and sons and daughters. And yet, they put profits before people. They made no attempt to improve their product. They have paid billions to settle lawsuits. Their reputation is permanently tarnished.

No PR professional can fix that. No words will make it right. PR is no substitute for doing the right thing.