The Right Thing Is Usually the Best Thing
By Bill Furlow
Furlow Corporate Communications
Here’s the kind of nationwide news story you never want to see written about your company:
Burger King refused to recall a ball that holds Pokémon toys after a 13-month-old girl suffocated on the plastic container, acting only after a second problem with the ball was reported, a federal official said Tuesday.
“We asked them repeatedly to do a recall or in the very least stop distribution of the Pokémon ball, and they refused on both counts,” said a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman. “They just wouldn’t do it. They didn’t give a reason.”
Not having been inside the inner sanctum at Burger King. I can only guess at the conversations that must have taken place as executives debated whether to recall the 3-inch containers for the wildly popular premiums. “We’ve spent a fortune on this promotion, and it’s bringing in millions of customers.” “How much will a recall cost?” “We’ll be a laughing stock.” “The kid’s will riot.” Someone no doubt spoke up for social responsibility and not putting young children at risk, but that viewpoint failed to carry the day.
It took two weeks and a second child nearly dying from having a Pokémon ball get stuck over her nose and mouth before Burger King made a voluntary recall. The upshot was that the company had the same recall expense the same embarrassment and much of the same loss of sales it would have if it had acted sooner. But it got no credit for acting responsibly or showing concern for its customers.
Because of the delay and the attendant CPSC criticism. Burger King received negative publicity around the country, including a prominent story in the Los Angeles Times that ran on for half a page.
People will draw their own conclusions about what Burger King’s delay says about its corporate values. To me, though, it illustrates the maxim that the right thing to do – ethically, morally, legally – is generally the best thing to do in a business sense as well.
As I have worked with companies and institutions in crisis over the past five years, I have never seen a leader have second thoughts or express regrets over putting the integrity of the enterprise and the welfare of customers and employees ahead of short-term profits.
The best leaders know that good reputations are earned over years but can seriously damaged in days.
Recently, we have all watched as Alaskan Air struggled through a very painful tragedy, which they seem to have done well. Alaskan Air executives said they took as their model the response of Swissair to its September 1998 crash. Swissair is obviously a company that understands the value of its reputation and, perhaps, even knows that a crisis situation can provide a corporation a rare opportunity to show a human side.
After one of its planes crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, Swissair made every reasonable effort to support the families of those onboard. It flew relatives to the scene of the recovery effort in Nova Scotia. Key executives went there and personally offered condolences. Checks of $20,000 were written to those who needed short-term financial help.
Later, Swissair paid to fly hundreds of family members back to Nova Scotia for an anniversary memorial service, and it wrote additional checks of $154,000 per victim – without requiring recipients to waive their right to sue. Company leaders did not take orders from their lawyers or insurers but did what they thought was right.
An article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that it is not clear whether Swissair’s efforts will ultimately save it money by reducing the number of lawsuits filed against it, but certainly it has burnished its reputation as an air carrier that understands its responsibility and cares about its customers. An association of surviving family members wrote the president of Switzerland a year after the crash praising the airline’s “humanitarian attitude.”
Companies that are forced to perform under intense media scrutiny during high-profile news stories would do well to note that the public forms lasting impressions about them during those times. Think of Exxon and the drivers who still refuse to buy gas because of the way it handled the Alaskan oil spill 10 years ago. Americans are very forgiving when their concerns are treated seriously. But they have long memories for those who mislead them or insult their intelligence. That’s why doing the right thing makes good business sense.
How To Reach
A Crisis Planning Trend?
One of the hardest parts of my job is persuading organizations to invest the time and money to plan for crisis. It’s a lot like selling earthquake insurance. People would rather not think about it, and so they don’t.
In the past year, however, more companies seem to be acknowledging the likelihood that one day they will be hit with a crisis. I have been asked to help firms ranging from the aerospace and food industries to a pair of hotel chains, among others.
A client whom I helped through a crisis several years back recently contacted me with a new problem. It was gratifying to hear that when the company’s senior management team gathered for the first time to discuss the current situation, three executives showed up carrying the planning book we had created. They felt much more confident knowing they were not starting from scratch.
Most of the decisions that must be made during a crisis can be made earlier, when you’re not under pressure and when all your options are still available. Like earthquake insurance, it’s a pretty cheap investment given the stakes.
Crisis Communications Talks
I am happy to speak to professional groups about dealing with crises. Among those I have addressed in recent months are: the Industrial Environmental Coalition of Orange County, the American Society of Travel Agents, the Litigation Section and the Employment and Labor Law Section of the Orange County Bar Association, the Public Relations Society of America Reno Chapter, and rountables of business leaders hosted by TEC and the ABL Organization.
Chapman University President Jim Doti also gave me the opportunity to discuss the topic on his “Economic Journal” on KOCE.
Anyone interested in having me speak to a professional organization should call me.
Identifying Your Key Constituencies
When planning for or dealing with a crisis, we often focus primarily on what we will say to the news media. But every business has other stakeholders that also must be communicated with effectively. For example:
· Employees. You need them to feel proud of where they work and be able to articulate the actions you take and the reasons for them. They can be your ambassadors in the community and with your customers if you keep them informed.