There's no shortage of corporate drama. Our news feeds have been clogged with an endless parade of companies unraveling before our eyes. Just a few examples: Uber, Tesla, that notorious Pepsi ad, United Airlines, and a string of corporate security breaches.
Karen Wickre is Backchannel's advice columnist, as well as a veteran word wrangler who's previously worked at Twitter and Google, among others. She's also a media obsessive, internet lover, and art & dog enthusiast.
The minute I see news about companies in trouble, I send good thoughts to the PR team. It's their lot in life to tend to any issue that gets public attention—planned or unplanned. And let me assure you, those unplanned emergencies are tough. As a veteran of Google and Twitter's communications teams, I've been privy to a variety of corporate flare-ups. In both places I was the editorial lead, and worked closely with the PR folks to plot the timing and the message of company statements, follow ups, and employee updates. When a final statement (or apology, or explanation) was ready, I would apply the final polish to the copy—which had, of course, been vetted and revised by umpteen others—before hitting "publish" to the company blog.
Given the near-incessant stream of corporate gaffes we're seeing lately, it's easy to assume that clueless PR teams are behind the ham-handed responses—or more aggravating, the radio silences. So consider this a peek behind the curtain of how crisis management operates against the clock and through news cycles.
First, do not assume that all crises are the same. The main flavors:
Self-inflicted. Bad behavior, neglect, bad hires or fires, or bad customer experience. These often start with leaks, public accusations, or real-time reports that are difficult to ignore—we won't soon forget that passenger video on United.
Silicon Valley's biggest companies pay Karen Wickre for her advice — but at the Help Desk, it's free to you.
Unanticipated data error. This may be financial, or a technical data blunder that has some consequence, but is not based on malfeasance. (i.e.: Google Street View data collection in 2010)