5 poorly handled crisis incidents and the lessons you can learn from them

We recently looked at some crisis media management incidents that had been handled well.

But what about those responses which were not managed quite so successfully?

In this blog, we are going to look at several case studies we sometimes use in our crisis communication training courses to help delegates with their learning.

We are going to begin by looking at three examples we haven’t previously studied in our blogs.

 

Sky History and the face tattoo fiasco

This is the most recent crisis we are going to focus on in this blog, having only happened in October 2020.

Now, you might think that a channel covering some of the most significant events in history would be well placed to have done better due diligence around the meaning of a contestant’s rather prominent face tattoos.

But it seems Sky History overlooked them when it came to the cast of one of its newest shows – The Chop: Britain’s Top Woodworker.

One participant, Darren Lumsden, was accused of having a Nazi symbol on his face after the channel’s social media channels posted a clip from an upcoming episode.

The contestant was seen to have the number 88 tattooed on his cheek – a number which is used by white supremacists to show support for Hitler. And there were other worrying markings, with Irish Historian Elizabeth Boyle posting that she could see at least five potential Nazi and white power tattoos.

And, as is so often the way, the story quickly moved from social media to mainstream media.

So how did the channel respond?

Well, after initially staying quiet, it responded by dismissing the concerns about the programme, which was presented by Lee Mack. 

It said that its producers had carried out “extensive” background checks and added that Mr Lumsden had “no affiliations or links to racist groups, views or comments".

And it added that: “Any use of symbols or numbers is entirely incidental and not meant to cause harm or offence."

In other tweets it also said that the number 88 referred to the year Mr Lumsden’s father had died – something which may have come as a bit of a shock to Mr Lumsden Snr who later gave an interview confirming he was alive and well.

As the denial unravelled, UK History began to backtrack, deleting its initial responses and replacing it with something closer to the sort of statement it should have issued in the first place.

It said: "While we further investigate the nature, and meaning, of Darren's tattoos, we have removed the video featuring him from our social media pages, and will not be broadcasting any episodes of The Chop: Britain's Top Woodworker until we have concluded that investigation.”

That’s closer to the sort of response we would suggest on our crisis communication courses. Importantly, it includes examples of action, with the investigation and taking the programme off air. But it could have gone further.

However, the real problem is that its initial defensive responses and denials made the issue worse.

Of course, when an issue emerges, you need to respond quickly. But you need to keep a calm head and be sure of your facts and that what you say won’t come back to haunt you.

Here is what a more considered initial response might have looked like “We are aware of the concerns people have about the tattoos on one of the contestants on The Chop. Although we did carry out extensive background research on all the contestants, we have launched an urgent investigation to understand the meaning of these tattoos. While that is being carried out, the programme will not be aired.”

Had it responded like that, the channel would have been looking at much less damaging and humiliating coverage.

Sky History denies Lee Mack interviewed a Nazi on woodwork show amid furious backlash Mirror

Sky History deny The Chop star’s tattoos are ‘Nazi related’ Metro

Father whose ‘death’ was used by Sky show to explain contestant’s ‘Nazi-style’ tattoos is still alive Daily Mail

A few weeks later, it was announced that the series would be chopped with a Sky History spokesperson saying that the contestant’s tattoos “could be connected to far-right ideologies and could cause offence.” It added that the contestant denies “he has, or ever had, far-right leanings.”

Key learning points

  • Ensure you are 100 per cent confident in the accuracy of your information before you use it in your response.
  • Avoid denials and defensive responses in your initial responses – they may come back to haunt you as the story develops.

 

TSB’s IT fiasco

It was an IT failure that cost a bank £330m and saw 80,000 customers switch their accounts to a competitor.

TSB’s fateful attempt to move to a new IT system was not only hugely costly but it also saw Paul Pester forced to stand down as chief executive. And there was a Parliamentary inquiry.

The crisis was caused by an attempt to move to a new IT system. The move left thousands of customers unable to access their accounts, while others reported that they were able to access other people’s details.

At one point, the Daily Mail suggested TSB stood for Totally Shambolic Bank.

And the IT issues went on sporadically for months.

In terms of crisis communication, you could argue that the bank did a lot right. It quickly said sorry and there were regular updates on its website and social media channels.

And Mr Pester led from the front from the start.

But with no solution in sight and the problems mounting, the bank had no way of escalating its crisis response.

And the crisis became closely associated with Mr Pester.

Five months after the IT switch, and with customers still experiencing intermittent IT problems, the boss stood down.

In that time, he had been criticised by politicians for “misleading communications” and by the Financial Conduct Authority for giving an “optimistic view” of services.

Key learning points:

  • Don’t always use your CEO at the start of a crisis response. If you are unable to solve the issue or problems grow, you won’t be able to escalate your response.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of over-promising. It can be tempting to opt for bold statements and promises when you are in the firing line, but when you can’t live up to them, it makes a bad situation worse and damages credibility. The Treasury select committee said that Mr Pester had “not been straight with” MPs and customers about TSB’s recent IT meltdown and that the bank’s public communications had often been “complacent and misleading”.

 

 

Domino’s YouTube disaster

When organisations think about the causes of a crisis, how many consider the actions of their own people?

Well, if you haven’t included them as a potential cause of a crisis in your plans, you might reconsider after our next example.

Domino’s found itself at the centre of a social media storm after two of its employers filmed themselves doing things to food that would put people off ordering fast food for life.

It took the pizza company two days to respond to the video that were posted on YouTube and by that time it had been seen by 750,000 viewers – high numbers where you consider this crisis happened in 2009.

While the company stalled, online conversations grew apace with increasing speculation about the location of the store at the centre of the unhygienic story.

And the video was making national headlines.

When Domino’s did eventually respond, it did so pretty well, with a video from president Patrick Doyle which was posted on YouTube.

He said: "It sickens me to think that two individuals can impact our great system, where 125,000 men and women work for local business owners."

Despite saying the right things, it was a wooden, scripted performance which reduced its impact.

Key learning points:

  • When a crisis strikes and your reputation is being damaged, you cannot afford to remain silent. 48 hours is far too long and served to allow rumour and speculation to fill the void. At the start of the crisis, you may well not know all the information. But you can still communicate to show people that you are aware of what has happened and begin to show them what you are doing about it.
  • Spokespeople cannot just say the right things. They also have to say it in the right way. This is where media and communications training come in. Empathy and remorse should be displayed in a human and authentic way.

 

We’re now going to remind ourselves of some crises you may have seen before in these blogs.

 

The Prince and the masterclass in how not to do it

This blog has so far focused on how brands have responded to crises.

But our next example looks at how a spokesperson handled their time in a crisis interview.

And it is an interview that if you saw, you won’t be able to forget.

Prince Andrew gave an interview to Newsnight in an attempt to clear his name over abuse allegations.

But it backfired.

The biggest failing was the complete lack of empathy.

The prince showed no sympathy for the women at the centre of the story or offered any real condemnation of his long-term friend and billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

“I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady, none whatsoever,” was his comment on Virginia Roberts, who claimed she was forced to have sex with him three times.

Even at the end of the interview when presenter Emily Maitlis teed him up to show some remorse with the open “is there anything you feel has been left unsaid that you would like to say now” question, he still didn’t show any contrition or any awareness of a situation where young women were being abused and trafficked.

You got the impression that the only person the prince really felt sorry for was himself and that he saw himself as the victim.

One of the parts of the interview which stood out was when the prince described Epstein’s behaviour as ‘unbecoming’.

Ms Maitlis, who struggled to hide her astonishment, replied: “Unbecoming? He was a sex offender.”

The Duke of York then added: “Yeah. I’m sorry, I’m being polite.”

Was it politeness or an attempt to play down the seriousness of what had happened? Coupled with the lack of remorse you might be inclined to believe the latter.

Other issues with the interview included long rambling responses and answers lacking plausibility, while the Buckingham Palace setting suggested it had been given the royal seal of approval.

The words that summed the interview up best came from Charlie Proctor, Editor of Royal Central, who said: "I expected a train wreck. That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad."

Key learning points:

  • A crisis interview needs a plan. What is the key message you want to get across to those who are watching or listening? How do you want them to feel?
  • Put the victims first. Showing contrition or any awareness of a situation where young women were being abused and trafficked would not have suggested guilt.
  • Choose your language carefully. Using words that might be seen as an attempt to play down what has happened could make a bad situation worse.

 

The attempt to play down a crisis

One type of crisis we have seen increasingly in the past few years has been those caused by data breaches.

And one which stood out for us was an incident which saw the personal details of about 106 million people across the US and Canada stolen in a hack.

That Capital One data included names addresses, phone numbers, bank account details and social security numbers.

There were some good bits in its response to the incident. There was a quote from CEO and chairman Richard D Fairbank which sounded sincere and showed an understanding of the severity of what has happened and the impact it will 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.”

And there was some of that all-important action we talk about on our crisis communication courses, with the company promising to notify all those who had been affected and providing them with free credit monitoring and identity protection.

But the bit that stood out was a bit that seemed to attempt to play down the significance of what had happened.

It boldly claimed that “no bank account number or Social Security numbers were compromised”, before adding a pretty hefty clause which said 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.

And if that contradictory wording wasn’t bad enough, parts of its response seemed to have been written by the legal department. It’s opening line read: “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”. It is hard to work out who this is aimed at, but it is hardly plain English.

Key learning points:

  • In a crisis, what you say needs to honest and transparent. You can’t spin your way out of a crisis or try to down what has happened. The truth always comes out.
  • Stick to everyday language. Legal wording and phrasing can again be seen to play down or cover up what has gone wrong.

 

As we said in our recent look back at some crises that were handled expertly, there’s always something that can be leant from how other organisations have managed their time in the spotlight. 

There is probably a crisis communication case study for just about every conceivable scenario and you will find many more examples in previous editions of our blogs.

You can also find out more about planning for a crisis by downloading your copy of our free eBook.

 

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 practical crisis communication and media training.

 

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