In 1998, Jon Austin was the chief spokesman for Northwest Airlines during a disruptive and contentious two-week strike by the airline’s pilots. It was not, he admits today, his finest moment.
“We let it get too personal and too emotional,” Austin said in an interview, referring to both Northwest and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). “Both sides tried to enlist the public’s support, and the public didn’t want to be enlisted.”
It was a professional teaching moment for Austin, who subsequently left Northwest and became a crisis communications expert in his own right.
His clients have ranged from auto manufacturers facing lawsuits over vehicle malfunctions to professional services firms dealing with partner misconduct. He’s also represented some of Minnesota’s famous and not-so-famous business leaders — convicted auto mogul Denny Hecker was a client briefly.
Austin sat down with the Star Tribune recently to discuss the do’s and don’ts of crisis communications in a world where a corporate PR disaster can be one tweet away.
Q: What is the cardinal sin that most companies commit when they have a potential public relations disaster on their hands?
A: The cardinal sin most common for companies is that they wait too long. A crisis comes in two flavors. In one instance it bursts on you with no notice — a plant blows up, the CEO dies on the job.
The other type of crisis is one that builds up for a long time and then enters the public view through a lawsuit or an investigation. In either case, companies often don’t deal with preparation for an event until it happens. The strongest indicator of whether a company is going to successfully come through a disaster is if they have prepared for it.
Q: Why don’t companies prepare for the worst-case scenario?
A: In business typically, urgent pushes out important. There is always something more urgent than preparing for something that may or may not happen. Unlike other forms of business insurance, executives don’t think of crisis communications as a form of risk management that they are willing to spend money on. There’s no better advocate for having a communications plan than someone who got hurt because they didn’t have one. Most companies haven’t gone through this and they have a lack of familiarity with how the media will react, how plaintiffs will react and how regulators will react. Most companies spend days not thinking about the media and believe if you don’t talk to the media they will go away.
Q: What do companies fail to do in preparing for a crisis?
A: Many companies that have a plan don’t keep it up to date or don’t practice it. At Northwest Airlines, twice a year we would have fairly elaborate companywide drills on dealing with a plane crash. Executives at Northwest had an appreciation that the airline had significant exposure in the event of an accident. Most companies don’t do that. Companies also don’t react well in situations of pressure and stress and discomfort. That kind of stress degrades the ability of people to think clearly and make good decisions.
Q: Has the advent of social media affected crisis communication strategies?
A: It sped things up. Everything that has happened over the last 15-20 years in terms of technology has been to shrink the news cycle into one continuous hum. It’s raised the noise level enormously. Now you have people e-mailing and tweeting. Filtering all of that out is incredibly challenging. Social media has greatly broadened the circle of participation in these things. People can contribute their point of view, for good or bad, in real time.
Q: Can you give us an example of a poorly handled crisis?
A: I think the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis would be a good example, of how it has handled the investigation of sexual misconduct by members of the priesthood. I would like to be ‘in the room’ to understand why they’ve made the decisions they have on things like the timeliness of their responses, being more engaged with the media, not being available for more interviews. From an outsider’s perspective, some of the decisions they’ve made have perplexed me. General Mills is another example, with negative reaction to their user licensing agreement where if you “like” them on Facebook you can’t sue in court. It’s not your worst crisis, but it is one of those crises that is self-inflicted and could have been prevented.