All organisations are vulnerable to crises and rarely a day passes without a brand making headlines for the wrong reasons or finding itself at the centre of a storm.
But some are much more memorable than others.
When asked to provide an example of a well-managed crisis for one of our crisis communication training courses, I instantly recall how KFC handled closing its restaurants because of a lack of chicken.
At the other end of the spectrum, Tony Hayward’s “I want my life back” comment, during the BP oil spill crisis, is part of crisis communication folklore.
And who can forget how United Airlines handled the fallout after footage of a bloodied passenger being dragged off one of its flights went viral.
Now we have a new crisis we will undoubtedly reference in many crisis communication training courses.
Yorkshire Cricket Club’s handling of its racism scandal has propelled cricket on to the front pages. It centres on racism experienced by former player Azeem Rafiq.
Mr Rafiq said there was “institutional racism” at the club during an interview in September last year. The club launched an investigation – that took a year to complete – and faced questions about its impartiality from the start.
It eventually found the player was the "victim of racial harassment and bullying". But concluded, "there is no conduct or action taken by any of its employees, players or executives that warrants disciplinary action".
Publication of the report has been subject to delays, redactions and leaks, including a story that a racial slur directed at the player had been dismissed as “banter”.
I know that being called the p-word is never "friendly banter". For @YorkshireCCC to describe it as such is utterly shameful.— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) November 3, 2021
Solidarity to @AzeemRafiq30, who has been so badly let down by his former club.
The full report has still not been published at the time of writing.
The crisis increasingly gained momentum during the past week. Chairman Roger Hutton, together with some board members, has now resigned. Current and former players have been implicated. And an extensive list of corporate sponsors has cut ties with the club. It includes kit suppliers Nike, Anchor Butter, David Lloyd Clubs, and Yorkshire Tea.
JUST IN: Nike have announced that they will no longer be Yorkshire's kit supplier.— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) November 4, 2021
In a statement, they said: "We stand firmly against racism and discrimination of any kind.”
We have taken the decision to end our sponsorship agreement with Yorkshire County Cricket Club with immediate effect. ➡️ https://t.co/v19DHOxOGg— HarrogateSpringWater (@HarrogateSpring) November 4, 2021
Additionally, Yorkshire – the most successful team in English cricketing history - has been suspended from hosting international matches – a vital source of income.
This is a complicated case. But it could and should have been handled much better.
Here are a few crisis communication lessons we have identified from the scandal that has shaken cricket:
The aspect that stands out the most about this story is the lack of communication from those who run the club.
Mr Hutton didn’t say anything publicly about the crisis until he announced his resignation on Friday.
You don’t need to be a crisis communication expert to know that if the first thing you say on the subject comes during resignation interviews, you have waited too long.
Why did he not address the media when Mr Rafiq first spoke about his experiences at the club?
That would have shown the club took the issue seriously and that those at the top were accountable.
Mr Hutton could have outlined the action the club would be taking and reassured supporters and sponsors that these behaviours are not tolerated. He could have covered many aspects of CARE we discuss during our crisis communication training courses (Compassion, Action, Reassurance, Examples).
And he could have provided updates as the investigation proceeded.
As well as providing the visible leadership required during a crisis, putting the chairman, or another senior figure, forward to face the media would have also helped show the club was being transparent.
When it became clear Mr Rafiq was the "victim of racial harassment and bullying", Mr Hutton should again have been facing the media and apologising to the former player.
In the absence of any communication from leaders, there has been a succession of turgid and sometimes tone-deaf statements.
Some of these appear to have done more harm than good. They have been met with accusations the club had been trying to play down the seriousness of what had happened. And, at other times, sweep the story under the carpet and move on.
One statement said the player had been the “victim of inappropriate behaviour”, which is so vague it lacks meaning. And it is worth noting that statement was released the same day a crucial Test Match between England and India was abandoned because of Covid – a good day to bury bad news?
Good crisis management calls for open and honest communication. Say what has happened. Don’t hide behind vagueness.
A more recent statement, issued at the end of October, seemed strangely self-congratulatory. “The Yorkshire County Cricket Club is pleased to announce the actions it has taken since they received the report prepared by the Independent Panel in August this year,” it began.
CLUB STATEMENT: The Yorkshire County Cricket Club is pleased to announce the actions it has taken since they received the Report prepared by the Independent Panel in August this year.— Yorkshire CCC (@YorkshireCCC) October 28, 2021
“Pleased to announce” is a dull way to open any media statement, but it can leave organisations on a particularly sticky wicket during a crisis.
The more you communicate during a crisis, the more control you are likely to have over the story.
Yorkshire’s lack of meaningful communication, together with endless delays to the publication of report findings, has led to a succession of leaks and new angles to the crisis.
To use cricketing terminology, it has been constantly on the back foot.
This has led to the club often responding to the latest criticism, rather than proactively communicating the actions it has been taking, and progress that has been made.
Crisis communication tends to be reactive. But the more proactive organisations can be with the release of updates and the latest information, the more control they will have over the story.
Looking at this crisis, you can’t help but wonder if it is the latest example of a clash between legal and comms strategies.
The reluctance to release report findings, heavily redacted versions, the lack of communication, and the stilted nature of the things that have been said all hint at a heavy legal influence.
The need to protect reputation and the desire to avoid litigation can often conflict.
These two parts of organisations need to work closely to ensure crises are managed effectively (we can arrange training to help with that.)
But, ultimately, organisations need to be aware that the damage to reputation can be just as expensive, if not more so, than the cost of legal action – look at the sponsors and cash-generating matches Yorkshire has lost in the past few days.
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.