The Heroes and Villains of Crisis Communications… and how to get it right

Hannah Harris

March 6, 2018

Paper pinned to board with tick box for superhero or zero

While at completely opposite ends of the moral spectrum and an almost incomparable topic, there have been two news stories which have caught our attention in recent weeks in terms of how brands respond to negative news: the Oxfam sexual exploitation crisis…and the KFC chicken shortage debacle.


The reactions offer valuable lessons in crisis communication and how brands should act when their conduct comes into question.


Oxfam – cover ups and scandalous defences


Oxfam was hit with its biggest ever scandal (maybe the biggest of any brand), when an investigation published by The Times revealed that senior officials had been exploiting sex workers in Haiti in 2011 – regularly paying prostitutes for sex. This happened in the aftermath of an earthquake which had claimed between 220,000 and 300,000 lives, injured 300,000 and displaced 1.5million from their homes. Worse still was when it emerged that the humanitarian charity had in fact been trying to cover up news of its wrongdoing.


Oxfam’s reaction to this was to investigate the ‘whistleblower’, firing four people, with a further four resigning as a result. And while Deputy CEO Penny Lawrence reacted in the way most would expect – saying she was ‘desperately sorry’ for, and ‘ashamed’ of the scandal…and standing down as a result, it was CEO Mark Golding who effectively rubbed salt in his charity’s wounds. Commenting on the intensity of the coverage, Golding said it wasn’t as if Oxfam had ‘murdered babies in their cots’ (ouch), while flatly denying there had been any sort of cover up. He has since admitted that there were 26 reports of sexual misconduct since news of the scandal broke.


It’s clearly been a PR nightmare for Oxfam, with reports it could lose over £29million in European funding over the scandal, and supporters dropping left, right and centre. While this charity undoubtedly does help millions of lives across the globe with the majority of staff conducting themselves in the correct way, it’s a shame that the actions of the minority leads to millions of people losing trust and faith in the organisation.


KFC – earning respect by Newsjacking themselves


Now for a very different story. The KFC chicken supplier ‘fiasco’ broke when the fast-food chain announced that an issue with its new supplier meant delivery disruptions and not enough chicken to keep 900 of its UK restaurants open.


News of KFC’s worst week in history hit headline broadcast news and gained thousands of column inches. The BBC called it ‘Chicken Chaos’, while Twitter users branded it ‘probably the most unnecessarily over-dramatic moment in TV history’.


However, it was the brand’s reaction to its own bad news that earned the respect of the nation. KFC’s early reactions were jovial – on Twitter the brand posted: “The chicken crossed the road, just not to our restaurants” and a page appeared on its website directing ‘fans’ to restaurants which were still open. Phew.


However, when people started selling meals for £25,000 on eBay and the police released audio of a 999-caller saying the fast food restaurant had closed, we all realised that the UK seriously needed to get a grip.


But then a single, and very cheeky picture won us over. KFC’s ad agency Mother put out a full-page ad in The Metro, with the initials ‘KFC’ scrambled on its famous Bargain Bucket to read ‘FCK’. The copy read: “We’re sorry. A chicken restaurant without chicken. It’s not ideal.”


While the company could have spent its time blaming their supplier for the issue, it decided to ‘adult’, taking full responsibility, apologising to customers and thanking team members and partners. The result? Entirely positive coverage.


While one woman on ITV News at 10 still ranted about ‘having to go to Burger King’ (seriously!), KFC’s FCK-up has been branded ‘a masterclass in PR management’ by Andrew Bloch, founder of Frank PR. And we couldn’t agree more.


Crisis comms: how to get it right


A brand’s reputation can be either destroyed or salvaged by it’s response to crisis, and it’s always recommended that you seek support from a communications specialist, but here is some advice on how to deal with tricky situations:


  1. Take responsibility:

The Oxfam example shows us how things can go from bad to worse if you try and cover up an issue, or shift the blame. Be more like KFC and hold your hands up, while explaining that you appreciate the support of those around your brand in a time of crisis…and explain what you’re planning to do to solve your issue.

  1. Appoint one spokesperson:

Oxfam also screwed up again here, with Mark Golding effectively undoing any salvaging Penny Lawrence was attempting. In times of crisis, appoint a single person to handle questions around the issue. While others can feed into your brand’s stance, one point of media contact will reduce the likelihood of multiple people giving divergent views.

  1. Remind people of your positive track record:

After taking responsibility (which they didn’t do straight away), Oxfam should then have then reminded us of the positive work aid workers are doing across the globe. While there is absolutely no excuse for the actions of the few in Haiti, talking about the efforts of the majority in their organisation would have reminded us that this was an isolated incident.

  1. Talk to your customers:

In the wake of the Haiti scandal, Oxfam were too late in their apology and lost 7,000 donors as a result. Similarly, in 2017 United Airlines faced its own crisis after a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight. In a leaked internal letter, the CEO effectively blamed the passenger…which predictably got leaked meaning he then had to defend that too. Talk to your customers immediately and don’t try to bury bad news…it will eventually come out of the woodwork.

  1. Have a plan:

Don’t wing it! Be prepared for a crisis, and have a strategy to mitigate situations as they arise. You don’t need to try and predict issues, but think about the process, and be proactive and transparent in your response. If the crisis is completely unexpected, at the very least acknowledge it while you prepare your answer. But make sure you do respond fully ASAP, and don’t forget to have someone in charge of social.

  1. Get your people media trained:

It’s a no brainer.

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