2019 – a year in crisis

It has been another year packed with crises.

Many have been self-inflicted scandals others have been harder to anticipate.

Some have been handled well and in other cases, the way they have been managed has made things worse.

We have already featured Prince Andrew’s calamitous Newsnight interview in our round-up of the worst interviews of the year and some crises will have had more serious impacts than some of the crises we revisit below.

But these are the ones that we feel have clear crisis communication lessons for others.


Good apology

Brand apologies can be tricky and all too often organisations get them wrong.

But an example of one that got it right was provided by the Contently, a company which offers a similar content marketing service to our sister company Thirty Seven.

The brand found itself facing a social media backlash after announcing it was going to charge its freelance contributors a 4.75 per cent fee for them to get paid.

But when it changed its mind and said sorry it gave the sort of open, honest and transparent apology other organisations should strive for.

It started with one of the most impactful words that can come from a CEO “I’m sorry”.

And from there, it went on to show the action that was being taken to resolve the situation. The statement revealed that it had now published a contract with the ‘freelance community’; that it will launch a ‘Freelancer Advisory Board’ to ensure better feedback; and that it will be investing in workshops and ‘meetups’ for its freelance community.

It felt like a genuine apology that had come from its CEO. The final paragraph, in particular, highlighted this. It said: “The truth is that when you get up running a business for so long, it’s easy to lose track of the ideals that made you start that company in the first place. Your feedback made me see where I went wrong.”


Charity shows how to survive a crisis

Charities have increasingly found themselves in the media spotlight.

While some have struggled to get their crisis media management response right, others have shown how to survive the perfect storm of negative headlines and social media outrage.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution found itself in the firing line for trying to prevent people from drowning in other countries.

The crisis was triggered by reports it is cutting 135 jobs in the UK while some of the donations to the service are being spent on crèches in Bangladesh and swimsuits for Muslim women in Tanzania.

RNLI buys burkinis for Africans as it axes 100 UK jobs Daily Mail

RNLI slammed for spending millions on foreign aid while slashing 135 jobs in Britain The Sun

RNLI funding burkinis for Africans while cutting jobs The Times

There was also criticism from politicians.

So, how did the charity respond to the trouble?

It issued a prompt response on Twitter stating it was proud of its international work and to show that it had not tried to hide this programme.

It said: “In response to the @MailOnline & @thetimes: we are proud of our international work. Its (sic) saves (mostly kids') lives. And we haven't kept it secret - it's in our annual report, on our website and in the media. We spend just 2% of our expenditure on this work.”

That tweet included a link to a detailed and robust statement on its website where it elaborated on those points, tried to show it had been transparent on the issue and aimed to tackle some of the questions that have been raised, including why it had been paying for burkinis and creches and whether it had misled donors.

Such was the detailed nature of its response that you get the sense that this was a storm it had anticipated and prepared for.

One of the key things to note about this story is that it broke over the weekend, yet the RNLI, perhaps as you would expect from an organisation that rescues people around the clock, was able to respond quickly and efficiently.

Crisis media management incidents have a habit of happening outside of normal office hours. It is crucial organisation have crisis plans which identify those people who can update the media, respond on social media and make changes to the website whatever time a crisis strikes. 


Red noses turn to red faces

A charity that fared less well in the intense spotlight of a crisis was Comic Relief.

It found itself facing accusations of ‘white saviourism’ after Labour MP David Lammy criticised footage of TV personality Stacey Dooley working alongside the charity in Africa, saying it “perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes”.

His tweet generated 10,000 comments, 14,000 likes and nearly 4,000 retweets.

What was interesting about the way Comic Relief handled the criticism was the way it decided to go on the offence.

Not only did it state it made ‘no apologies’ for sending Miss Dooley to Uganda, but it also called out the politician for not responding to its attempts to involve him in making a film in Africa.

Taking an aggressive approach to crisis media management and reputational issues is fraught with risk and can easily make difficult situations worse.

No-one likes to be seen as a pushover.

If you have been wronged, and it is likely to cause lasting damage, then there is some merit to that approach.

But in most cases, it is far better to stay well away from implying any criticism of those attacking you and try instead to build bridges and positive outcomes.

Rather than the ‘we’re right, you’re wrong approach’ taken by the charity, a much better approach for organisations who find themselves in this type of situation is to show a willingness to reflect and consider different viewpoints.

Whether or not you agree with Mr Lammy’s argument, the issue he raised is not a new one. In 2017 Comic Relief faced similar criticism following a video with Ed Sheeran.

For me, its response to the most recent criticism should have recognised that there is a valid conversation to be had on this issue or at the very least show that it is willing to listen to those who do not agree with its approach.

Charities, like other organisations, should be seen as being open to scrutiny and not above being challenged.

The other interesting thing about this case was that it was all played out over social media in front of an audience of millions. Not only did it respond to the original criticism on Twitter, but it has used the same platform to continue the debate with the politician.

Social media is a spectator sport and when organisations become embroiled in a head-to-head argument it makes for great viewing and gives issues oxygen.

On our crisis media management and social media training courses, we tell our delegates to take these conversations offline and not to get involved in a tit-for-tat series of posts. Surely someone from Comic Relief could have contacted the MP’s office and tried to take the issue away from social media.

Each instalment of this particular saga has led to a fresh wave of media coverage.

When organisations do get involved in a social media debate it can also become hard to maintain messaging consistency.

Note how Comic Relief went from saying that Mr Lammy had not responded to its requests for him to get involved, to stating that he had two meetings with them on the issue. Not quite the same thing.

Whether this incident resulted in lasting reputational damage or little more than red faces behind those famous red noses is up for debate, but there are clear crisis lessons others can learn from it.


Crisis lessons from an unlikely source

We always say on our crisis communication training courses that a crisis can strike anyone at any time.

And the perfect example of this came from the US and the unlikely story of Carson King.

The 24-year-old shot to stardom this year when he held up a sign on TV saying ‘Busch Light supply needs replenished’ complete with details of how money could be transferred through Veno – a money transfer app - for the American beer.

That sign went viral and the donations poured in and, after buying one case of the beer, Mr Carson decided to send the rest of the money to a children’s hospital. And the brewery and Veno promised to match whatever he raised.

Mr King became something of a celebrity with Busch Light offering a year’s supply of beer and his home state of Iowa holding a ‘Carson King Day’.

But then a reporter discovered some offensive posts he had written when he was 16 and asked him about them during an interview for a profile article.

Suddenly, he was about to become the latest person or organisation to be caught up in the ‘cancel culture’ - a term given to the backlash a person, brand or company faces when allegations about behaviour or mistakes – often historic - come to light.

But what happened from that point on offers crisis media management lessons which organisations and people who have spent far more time in the public spotlight than Mr King can learn from.

He got ahead of the damaging story, holding a press conference before it was published. And he took to Twitter where he issued a statement.

He called the posts “an attempt at humour that was offensive and hurtful.”

He said: “I am embarrassed and stunned to reflect on what I thought was funny when I was 16-years-old. I want to sincerely apologize (sic).

“I am sharing this information tonight because I feel a responsibility to all of the people who have donated money.

“I cannot go back and change what I posted when I was a 16-year-old. I can apologize (sic) and work to improve every day and make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.”

That apology sounded heartfelt, genuine and human. You get the impression those were his words, rather than those of people who might be advising him.

The fallout from the story was intriguing. The offer of free beer was rescinded with the brewer stating the posts ‘did not align with our values’.

But Venmo vowed to continue to work with him, stating ‘none of us as adults are the same people we were in our teens’. And Iowa still went ahead with Carson King day, with Governor Kim Reynolds tweeting “You can make a mistake in your life and still go on to do amazing things.”

And the money kept coming in, now reaching $3m.

The real backlash was felt elsewhere. The Des Moines Register newspaper which broke the story issued a statement defending the story. And the journalist who worked on the story is ‘no longer with the Register’ after his own previous inappropriate social media posts were revealed. 

How much of this outcome is due to the good deeds of the ‘beer money guy’ and how much is because of the way he handled the story, is up for debate.

But by getting ahead of the story and offering a genuine sounding apology he undoubtedly limited the damage.


Mobile meltdown

Customers unable to make or receive calls and text or access the internet. Users taking to social media to express their anger and a raft of negative headlines.

Three suffered a major mobile meltdown earlier this year. And to make matters worse. Those who turned to its website for information about the outage found it was similarly out of action.

What instantly stood out about the incident was how long it took for Three to respond and acknowledge the issue.

Complaints about the service started at around 11.30pm on a Wednesday and the company didn’t confirm there were any issues until almost 9am on the Thursday.

That is way too long, even bearing in mind the awkward timing of the outage.

A key rule of crisis media management is that brands need to be able to respond quickly to incidents outside of normal working hours if they are going to control the story and keep customers informed.

In a 24-hour society, you cannot afford to wait for office hours.

Three put the cause of the problems down to ‘technical difficulties’. Quite what that meant is anyone’s guess. If I was a customer, I would want more of an explanation as to why I was unable to use a service I am paying for.

It’s an approach that lacks the transparency organisations should strive for in a crisis.

Using humour in a crisis response is a risky strategy and needs to be carefully considered. Responding to a tweet from 02 about its 5g network, Three said: “Oi, did you unplug our network so you could plug in your 5G? not cool guys, that’s power socket etiquette 101.”

If that was designed to make its customers smile, it seemed to miss the mark.

Sure, the social media team is not going to be able to fix the problem any sooner, but larking about does not necessarily create the impression the brand is doing everything possible to tackle the problem.


The response that backfired

Can a negative tweet become a full-blown crisis?

Well, if it is not managed well it can certainly trigger one. Just ask easyJet.

The budget airline found itself in the firing line in the summer when a customer posted a picture of someone sitting on a supposedly backless chair during a flight he was taking to Geneva.

The poster, Matthew Harris, quipped “easyjet beats Ryanair to have backless seats.”

The low-cost airline responded by saying “thanks for bringing this to our attention, before we can investigate this could I ask you to remove the photograph & then DM us more info regarding this, so we can best assist you.”

That response caused social media outrage with users slamming the airline and others going out of their way to share the picture it was so keen to see removed. The company was trending on Twitter for much of the day and the story was propelled into the mainstream media.

The airline subsequently issued a statement, around two hours after the tweet, which said that “no passengers were permitted to sit in these seats as they were inoperative awaiting repair.”

The suggestion was that the photo was staged or at least misleading.

But by that point, its initial handling of the situation had already turned a non-story into a damaging crisis media management situation.

Sure, it probably felt it was being unfairly criticised, but Its initial tweet sounded like a desperate attempt to try to hide or bury negative news. It sounded like a form of censorship where the main concern was the photo and the damage it might cause.

The suggestion that the photo needed to be removed before the incident could be investigated was poorly worded and had a bullying, controlling tone.

At the very least it should have explained why the photograph should be removed, perhaps citing the privacy of the other passengers included in the image.

It’s obviously easier when you are not in the firing line, but a better approach would have been to say: “Thanks for bringing this to our attention – we are urgently looking into exactly what has happened here.  I will DM you to gain some more information.”

This type of response, which could pretty much be drawn up in advance of a crisis, would show the airline was taking action and may have succeed in moving the conversation offline.


The good, the bad and the ugly

The crises we have revisited in this blog have either had a good or bad response. So, let’s finish with one which managed to include good, bad and even ugly elements in the same response.

Capital One was in the media spotlight when details of about 106 million people across the US and Canada were stolen in a  huge hack that included names addresses, phone numbers, bank account details and social security numbers.

One of the best bits about the way it responded was the quote from CEO and chairman Richard D Fairbank in the statement.

It came high up in the response and displayed empathy, contrition and visible leadership. It also sounded sincere and showed an understanding of the severity of what has happened and the impact it would have on customers.

He said: “While I am grateful that the perpetrator has been caught, I am deeply sorry for what has happened.

“I sincerely apologize for the understandable worry this incident must be causing those affected and I am committed to making it right.”

Sadly, not all of the statement met that standard. Take the opening line which appeared to be written by the legal department.

It said: “Capital One Financial Corporation announced today that on July 1, 2019, it determined there was unauthorized (SIC) access by an outside individual who obtained certain types of personal information relating to people who had applied for its credit card products and to Capital Once credit card customers.”

It went on to talk about fixing “the configuration vulnerability”. Hardly plain English.

And worse was to follow, as some of the statement was also bizarrely contradictory and could easily be seen as an ugly attempt to spin or play down the significance of the incident.

It boldly claimed that ‘no bank account number or Social Security numbers were compromised’, before adding a pretty hefty clause which says 140,000 Social Security numbers and 80,000 banks account numbers were in fact compromised. Additionally, one million Canadian Social Insurance Numbers were also compromised in the incident.

Was it hoping that people would only read the ‘no bank account number or Social Security numbers were compromised’ part of that sentence?

That sentence should really read ‘bank account numbers and social security numbers were compromised’ to create the transparency and honesty brands should strive for when managing a crisis.

After this breach, it may be time for Capital One to replace its ‘what’s in your wallet slogan’ with ‘who’s been in your wallet’.


Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our journalist-led crisis communication training courses.


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