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Crisis management: the good, the bad and the ugly

Jan 2, 2023 | Uncategorised

What does it mean to be “good in a crisis”? Whatever the nature of the rupture to your business, there are two sides to crisis management. One is internal, the other external.

First, there’s the internal procedure, the aim of which is to minimise downtime, assess what went wrong and make appropriate changes. At Milners Law, we approach this in three parts: spot it, contain it, stop it.

Then there’s the thorny question of PR. A crisis has the potential to take the shine off your business and send clients elsewhere. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Both are of equal importance and need to be addressed simultaneously – one reason why expert advice from crisis management lawyers can help in this situation.

Keeping crisis management entirely in-house has its advantages – in particular, your intimate knowledge of how the company operates. But it has its disadvantages too.

Chief among these is the simple fact that stress can blur your vision and lead to less-than-ideal decision-making. It can also lead to strained relationships with colleagues and partners – all of which are bad for your bottom line.

Having a dispassionate outside set of eyes can make both internal and external crisis management more efficient and allow you to get back up and running sooner.

Before we take a look at some high-profile crisis management examples, here’s a brief rundown of our three-step crisis management approach. It’s designed to be straightforward and efficient without cutting any corners. It goes like this:

1. Spot it

Everybody knows that waiting for a crisis to blow over is a bad idea. It’s not unlike household chores. A quick spritz on the kitchen counter every day is far better than a deep clean once a month.

Forgive us if we’re stating the obvious. The reason is that companies don’t always act on what they know to be sensible. It’s tempting to bury your head in the sand rather than face the problem head-on.

A first step might be to review your company’s crisis policies and assess the risks. This is something that an experienced crisis management lawyer can help with.

Acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it – and once you’ve mobilised, you’re ready to move on to step two.

2. Contain it

Conaining a crisis sooner rather than later has a couple of key benefits – one internal, the other external.

The first is that it sends out a clear message to your clients, partners and suppliers that you’re in control. This ship isn’t rudderless, just temporarily in choppy waters. Very soon you’ll be back to normal, so the people you work with needn’t look elsewhere.

The second benefit is that it sends a similar message to staff. This helps minimise staff grievances – because the last thing you need during a crisis is a heap of HR to deal with too.

This is the stage at which a PR response is necessary. This is a multi-blade knife which has to achieve several things simultaneously:

  • Address the issue publicly.
  • Acknowledge that mistakes have been made.
  • Show how the issue is being dealt with.
  • Publicly announce the changes that will be made to ensure it won’t happen again.

Again, this public response is an area in which a crisis management lawyer can be invaluable. They will reduce the chances of a PR blunder or internal wrangling.

Once the crisis is contained, you can move on to step three.

3. Stop it

Another grave temptation in a crisis is to move on without taking stock. It’s a cliche for a reason that a crisis is an opportunity – to learn, to grow and to move forward stronger.

That involves some serious self-reflection as you ask: “why did the crisis happen? And what measures need to be taken to stop it from ever happening again?”

Tackling these questions head-on will give you the best chance of emerging from the crisis stronger than before – both in terms of internal staff relations and your public standing.

Some examples of crisis management

1. KFC

In 2018, KFC ran out of chicken in the UK. As crises go, it couldn’t get much worse – unless all their employees had got fried, too.

KFC took a risk and paid for two full-page adverts in The Sun and The Metro. Both showed a desolately empty KFC bucket labelled “FCK”.

KFC chose these publications for their popular appeal and extensive readership. And although it was a purely print-based campaign, it went viral – shared online 219 million times according to one estimate.

The risk paid off, and KFC achieved the impressive feat of issuing an apology without ever saying sorry. Plus, it was possibly the only successful three-letter PR campaign.

2. Volkswagen

Remember the KFC chicken shortage of 2018? Our bet is that either you don’t or you remember the FCK ad.

The same can’t be said for Volkswagen, whose 2015 emissions scandal continues to hang around. This is partly due to its PR response.

The basics are that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused Volkswagen of deploying software in its cars that allowed them to pass clean air emissions tests. This was both illegal and fraudulent.

At first, Volkswagen denied it knew anything about the software – then, a year later, admitted it did. Around the same time, it laid off 300,000 workers.

Volkswagen was in trouble for deceiving both lawmakers and consumers. Its response was to flip-flop and then make up for a loss in profits by firing employees.

3. Facebook/Meta (2021)

Finally, Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg landed in hot water when whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked thousands of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal and Securities and Exchange Commission. This led to Congressional hearings and user backlash in the form of the “Delete Facebook” social media campaign.

Zuckerberg’s response was to avoid taking responsibility, blame the media and rebrand as Meta.

Whether this will have a deleterious effect on the Meta empire remains to be seen – but it’s a clear example of how not to do crisis management.

Does your firm need legal help with crisis management? At Milners Law, we adopt an intuitive three-step approach designed to minimise downtime and let you learn from the disruption. Interested? Then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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