Crisis communication

Uber Fatality Shows a Crisis Can Travel Far and Fast

The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

Managing a communications crisis in the age of technology has the quality of managing the branches of a family crisis, as evidenced by the fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona involving an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode. It may be the first recorded fatality involving a driverless car.

The pedestrian fatality ensnared Uber (which was testing the driverless vehicle), Volvo (the manufacturer of the vehicle), an unidentified software developer and other automakers working on autonomous vehicles. For its part, Uber expressed condolences to the victim’s family, suspended its driverless vehicle testing program and said it was cooperating with local police.

Preliminary indications suggest the accident, which involved a woman and her bike emerging from a shadowy area where there wasn’t a crosswalk, may have been unavoidable with or without a driver. However, that finding is unlikely to quell concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles nor the communications crisis surrounding the incident.

Some critics have jumped on news that the Uber driver was a felon. More thoughtful critics have wondered how the software controlling the vehicle was written, and what priority it gave to avoiding a pedestrian, even one that may have been hard to spot with a human eye. Broader criticism has centered on how rapidly driverless cars have been advanced and whether the transformation should be slowed or even scrapped.

Automakers with autonomous vehicles on the cusp hustled to lament the fatality, but defend the project. Software developers may be squirming to find out how to avoid becoming scapegoats.

Construction accidents, environmental spills and financial embezzlements spill over to multiple parties, usually resulting in finger-pointing. But technology-centered crises are even more borderless. People harbor skepticism about technology. Ride-hailing Uber may be the most distrusted technology company, even among people who rely on it to get home safely from a night on the town.

Managing a crisis has always been a fluid, ill-structured exercise. When a crisis goes 3-D, it takes a special kind of communicator binoculars to track. Adding to the fun are the ever-changing outlets for crisis exposure. More angles, more players, more outlets make for more headaches.

Perhaps the most telling lesson from the Uber fatality is the crisis trail it creates for uninvolved parties. Even though a Volvo was involved in the accident, Mercedes felt compelled to comment since it has signed up to provide Uber driverless. Toyota commented because it is exploring driverless cars. The police made a point to note it was investigating the fatal accident just like any other fatal accident.

Responding to a crisis is hard and it is getting harder. More vulnerabilities. More “reporters” with smartphones. More “news” outlets. And now more players. If you thought you could skate by or play it by ear, your odds continue to plummet. You never know when a crisis can occur, and you can’t really guess how, who or where it will affect your business or reputation.

Crisis preparation may be harder than denial, but is a lot more useful and constructive. The Uber fatality should be a loud horn honk that crisis prep is a basic accessory to any successful business.


Representing Ferguson, MO

People who dislike confrontation should avoid crisis communication. It is all about confrontation, often with your own client.

Denise Bentele, CEO of Common Ground, the PR firm hired by Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by protests and commentary following the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer.

Bentele and her St. Louis-based PR team face a tough job. Michael Brown, the shooting victim, died from six gunshot wounds, two to the head. His bleeding body was left uncovered on the street where he was shot for an uncomfortably long time. The police chief refused at first to disclose the name of the officer who shot Brown. Police responded to protests by brandishing military-style armor and weapons. Businesses in Ferguson were looted. Journalists covering the protests were arrested. Scenes flashed across national TV news broadcasts of bedlam in the streets.

It would be fair to say life in this St. Louis suburb pretty much has changed forever. Scrutiny will be intense in a place that has a black majority, an all-white city council and just a handful of black police officers.

Providing crisis communications to Ferguson would be daunting for anyone. Bentele discovered daunting included negative public and professional reaction to her hiring. In addition to the typical rants about hiring a PR spin machine, Common Ground was assailed for the ethnic makeup of its staff.

Bentele defended her firm's involvement, saying she and her team were brought in to help Ferguson field "the overwhelming number of media inquiries" the city received daily. Bentele also said she recommended Ferguson hire The Devin James Group, a black-owned firm, to assist on community engagement.

Looking Past the Chaos of Crisis

When events are out of control, focus on what you can control — gathering corroborated facts, aggressively addressing the problem at hand and proactively communicating. 

Energy is wasted trying to control a crisis. By definition, a crisis means events are out of control. 

Chaos can paralyze otherwise prudent, resourceful leaders. Real leadership requires looking past the chaos to deal with a crisis and preserve a reputation or brand. 

While others are in a daze, leaders look for facts. What happened? How did it happen? What needs to be done? 

Solid facts usually illuminate the path of what to do. Then it takes courage to follow the path, even if the chief financial officer or legal counsel argues for caution or delay. Acting decisively on good data is a sign of leadership and it builds credibility with those impacted by the crisis.

Solve Problems, Not Find Fault

The website rollout of your signature achievement is an unmitigated disaster. And the chancellor of Germany learns the United States has been poking its spying nose into her smart phone text messages. Time to take a vacation or time to shoulder the blame?

Most blunders don't rise to the level of those facing President Obama. And regardless how he chooses to respond, the smart response for the person in charge is to own the problem, even if it isn't his or her fault.

Granted, this is easier said than done. Legal advisors may warn against blindly accepting liability. Financial advisors may urge caution to avoid fines and costly restitution. Your own inner voice may resist taking the blame, wishing instead to transfer all your energy to the end of your finger pointed in someone else's direction.

However, there is abundant evidence that people can forgive mistakes, but resent equivocation or dissembling. Mostly what people want to hear is a little sympathy for what happened and a lot of action to fix the problem so it doesn't happen again.

Owning a problem shouldn't be seen as a weak or defensive posture. Stepping up and taking charge can project a confidence-building image, an image based on action rather than ambivalence.

Sharp Nails in our Memories

The words you choose make a difference, so pick them wisely to connect, convince and compel your audience.Words matter, and well-chosen words are remembered.

Or, as French philosopher Denis Diderot put it, "Pithy sentences are like sharp nails that force truth upon our memories."

Despite irrefutable evidence that chiseled phrases stick in people's brains, many communicators are casual or careless with the words they choose. They write as if the words on their pages will have little effect, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Word selection demands attention to detail. Here are some of the details that require your attention:

The Battle for Trust

To win public issues and policy debates, you need more than good facts. You need to battle for trust to win over supporters and overwhelm opponents.Issue managers must do more than dispense facts. They must battle for trust.

Widespread skepticism is one of the biggest handicaps in trying to manage a public issue. You may have all the facts and figures, but if neighbors, community activists and even policymakers don't believe they are true, you are nowhere. 

There is no formula for building trust, but there are some tried and true principles in the battle for trust. Here are some of them: 

Tell Your Story — the Whole Story

You need to tell your story, but you gain credibility by telling the whole story. Better to hear it all — good and bad — from you than from your opponents.

Telling the whole story won't automatically build trust, but it establishes you are trustworthy, which is a very good beginning in the battle for trust.

Be Proactive, Don't Wait

Look the Part, Act the Role

Whether press conference or presentation, people watch better than they listen. You need to look the part and act your role, paying as much attention to your body language as your words.

From the first time we open our eyes as babies, people learn by seeing. We take cues, form judgments and sense emotions by watching the movements of people.

Studies show body language conveys even more emotional information than facial expressions. Together, they speak volumes. 

If you fidget at a podium or garble your words, your audience will sense a lack of confidence and may discount what you say, regardless how persuasive or profound your point.

So, in addition to carefully crafting your words, the effective speaker and presenter meticulously practices his or her delivery — exactly like an actor.

In fact, you should think of a media interview, press conference or presentation in the same way as a stage play. You have a role to play and you need to look the part and act the role.

Here are a few tips:

Avoid weak postures

You tip off your audience that you are nervous or unsure of yourself by slumping, sticking your hands in your pockets or clasping your hands behind your back. These are seen as weak as opposed to power postures. Leaning forward at a podium or a table signals confidence and a desire to connect with your audience.

If you answer questions following a speech or press conference, don't cross your arms, which is a sign of defensiveness.

The key is to be mindful of your movements, especially your hands. They can underscore your meaning or confound and distract an audience if out of sync with your message.

Start Strong

Great speakers don't begin with apologies or lame jokes. They lean into their topic and form bonds with their audiences.

Start with a strong first line — an intriguing question, a startling admission or a thought-provoking statement. 

Managing an Issue, Avoiding a Catastrophe

Managing an issue is harder and takes longer than just responding to one, but it can save your reputation, avert a catastrophe and protect your hindquarters.Circumstances such as angry neighbors, pesky protestors and petition drives force many organizations to respond to public issues, even when they are ill prepared. 

Issues management can mean the difference between a crisis turning into catastrophe. Issue management is the phrase PR professionals use to describe the process of anticipating a messy public process or debate and taking proactive steps to respond.

Issue management isn't rocket science, but it takes discipline and a forward-looking approach. Hoping the problem will disappear or fantasizing the fuss will blow over aren't strategies with much long-term prospect. Here are some basic tips that can help save your brand, reputation and hindquarters:

Snark Gone Viral

Social media's individual empowerment, immediacy and ability to embarrass are evident in Applebee's firing of a server for sharing a diner's snarky comment on Reddit. 

The incident has generated apologies, policy restatements and tons of online comment that threaten to keep the PR firestorm aflame for days or longer. 

It started when a pastor of a St. Louis church took members of her congregation to Applebee's after an evening service. When the pastor got the bill, with an 18 percent tip automatically added for the party of more than eight people, she crossed off the tip and wrote, "I give God 10%, why do you get 18%."

The server snapped a picture of the receipt and comment on her smartphone and later posted it online, where it went viral. 

The pastor was upset because the picture of the receipt included her signature, as well as the snarky comment. She demanded Applebee's fire the server responsible. Applebee's responded on its Facebook page, saying it was against restaurant policy to reveal diner personal information. The company's CEO apologized, the local Applebee's franchise operator apologized and the server was apparently fired.

Then all hell broke loose.

Taming an Issue Before It Roars

Your best opportunity to tame a thorny subject is before it becomes a public issue.

Issue management is often associated with public relations and lobbying exertions to corral an issue that has erupted into a public debate, prescriptive legislation or regulatory action, all of which can be messy and expensive. There is considerably more room to maneuver before an issue reaches the front pages, a bureaucrat's desk or the legislative bill hopper.

This requires anticipation — and a different bag of tricks.

It's not just who you know, it's what you know

Tamping down an issue that has exploded into the public consciousness and morphed into new rules or laws usually involves talking to the right people. The goal is influence.

Anticipating an emerging issue involves reading and talking to critics to develop a keener understanding of an issue and of expectations how to resolve it. The goal is information , which can be used to change a practice or behavior before it festers into a public sore point. The change might even be significant enough to give an organization or individual a marketing advantage.

Turning Strawberry Crisis into Opportunity

Oregon strawberries with E.Coli poisoned more than a dozen people, prompting the need for a thoughtful, authentic response from Oregon strawberry farmers."Strawberries are the angels of the earth, innocent and sweet with green leafy wings reaching heavenward." Unfortunately, Oregon strawberries from a farm in Washington County appear to be the angels of death for an elderly woman and sickness for as many as 15 other consumers, two of whom remain hospitalized, according to state health experts.

Tests confirm strawberries from the farm contained the E.Coli 0157.H7 bacteria. Experts link the E.Coli contamination to deer feces.

News of the E.Coli outbreak has put an understandable damper on consumer enthusiasm to buy those red, sweet delights of summer — and maybe a long-term dent on the reputation of the Oregon strawberry industry.

For their final exam, I asked my Willamette University MBA students to develop recommendations to address the immediate and longer term ramifications of this crisis. They offered some creative and useful ideas:

Work with grocers and farmers market vendors for point-of-sale demonstrations showing consumers how to wash strawberries properly before eating them. Create an eye-catching poster to draw consumer attention to the demonstrations.