A Four-Phase Approach to Crisis

Apple’s having a rough month.

Oh sure, there’s been a swell of great news for the company over the past few weeks. As you may have heard, Apple introduced three new iPhones in early October, along with the latest version of its Apple Watch. People seem particularly jazzed about the iPhone X, with its massive screen, and are excited about the LTE capabilities of the Apple Watch Series 3.

But shortly after Apple made its big announcement, some cracks in the company’s usually impenetrable armor began to show. Reviewers were unkind to the Apple Watch, stating that the LTE capabilities were not really something to phone home about. Then, reports about swelling and exploding iPhone batteries began making the rounds, causing some to think back on last year’s Samsung Galaxy Note debacle.

I’m picking a little on Apple here, and I probably should not be doing that. The truth is that despite rounds and rounds of testing, many companies introduce products that are not quite ready for real-world use. And there are many features that really can’t be adequately tested until they’re released into the unpredictable wild, as I suspect is probably the case with the Apple Watch connectivity problems.

It’s not so much that there are these issues, however. Often, that’s just the price for innovation. From a PR perspective, it’s about how companies react and respond to product issues.

The wrong way is to deny that there’s a problem, though this is a natural and understandable initial reaction. After all, development teams have likely spent hundreds if not thousands of hours working on the product. A lot of time and money was spent on its creation, followed by sales, marketing, distribution, and more. Companies put their reputations on the line with every product release, and accepting failure is not something that comes automatically.

Sometimes organizations take this denial a step further and blame their customers or the media.

Here’s the thing, though: no one wants to hear that. They don’t care what happened. They don’t care whose fault it is — though they certainly don’t want to hear that it’s their fault. They just want it fixed.

First response: own it

Fixing it starts with owning up to it, which goes a long way toward building trust and goodwill with customers. This is where every crisis communications program should start. Most customers can forgive a company for selling them a faulty product. But if that company then lies to them — tells them that there’s nothing wrong, they’re imagining things, or that the issue is being blown out of proportion — that trust begins to fall away. It’s tough to get those people back.

That’s why, when a problem arises, companies need to very quickly map out a crisis communications plan that crosses all communications disciplines. It’s important to ensure that everyone, from senior leaders, to sales, to marketing and beyond, are on the same page with regards to the messages the company wants to convey to its customers. Those messages should be succinct, honest, and distributed very quickly.

The initial outreach should be simple, empathetic, and contrite. It should go something like this:

“We did this. We understand your pain and frustration. We are working to get to the bottom of this. We will fix it. We are sorry.”

That response should not come a couple of weeks later, or even a few days later. As soon as a problem is found, the company needs to be on it. Simple talking points and messages that reflect the aforementioned contrition need to be established and provided to all of the key spokespeople. Not just the communications folks, either; the response needs to go all the way up the chain, straight to the CEO. Indeed, the CEO should take the lead on this response, setting the tone for the rest of the company.

Follow-up response: be communicative and transparent

Following the initial statements, companies need to continue to remain in constant communication with their customers. It’s important to keep them up-to-speed on what is happening and to proactively — and, if possible, on a one-to-one basis — address their issues.

This can come in many forms. The media is an obvious conduit, and they’ll very likely want to hear from corporate representatives in the thick of the crisis. But social media and direct email communications are also very effective channels through which companies can maintain continuous and direct contact.

Speaking of social media, companies that run into problems with their products will likely take some heat online from angry customers. Organizations must establish a plan to respond to these customers — and respond they must. Ignoring the pleas and complaints of Twitter and Facebook followers will only fan the flames of the crisis. Direct, honest, and consistent responses are important and can help defuse an escalating situation.

Follow-up response: correct the problem

This phase can take many forms, depending on the severity of the issue. In some cases, a simple software fix will suffice, but in others, a total recall may be necessary.

No matter what happens, apologies — and possibly recompense — will be in order. For example, last year, when Samsung had its issues the company was proactive in announcing a recall program for the defective phones. Sure, the messaging around that recall was muddied, and the response was tremendously slow — but when the time came, Samsung stepped up and did the right thing. The result was a successful launch of this year’s Galaxy Note8, with only passing thoughts given to last year’s issues.

Again, it’s not enough to simply fix the problem. Contrition is important, especially since it will help build the next — and longer-lasting — phase of the response plan.

Final (ongoing) response: re-establish trust and goodwill

It’s not enough to issue an update or put out a new product that simply does what it’s supposed to do and just call it a day. Following a defective roll-out will inevitably lead to constant questioning — from the press, customers, investors, and others. Executives must always be prepared to answer these questions, months — perhaps even years — after the initial problem. One has to look no further than Chipotle to see the lasting damage that can be done by a single issue.

Building back trust and goodwill requires organizations to continue to be forthcoming about past incidents, while focusing on the present and the future. While there’s no reason to rehash the past, executives should not shy away from it, either. Rather, they can use it as a touchpoint on how it made their companies better. Perhaps they’ve strengthened quality control procedures, or introduced new customer programs, such as customer advisory boards.

In other words, companies should focus on the present and the future, while acknowledging and learning from past mistakes. That can help them avoid making these mistakes again, and potentially keep them from having to respond to yet another crisis.