Corporate Crisis Communication

Corporate Crisis Communication Analysis
Park University, 2017

Introduction

In the business world, facing a crisis is nearly inevitable. Whether the crisis is a public spectacle on an international scale, or something that only affects local office workers, the way that a business handles a crisis is important. A business’ ability to bounce back from disaster depends heavily on their crisis communication strategy. Effective crisis communication requires not only fundamental basics, but field appropriate actions and knowledge. Different methods may be utilized by different companies, and each method’s effectiveness will vary depending on the specific circumstances the company is facing.

The purpose of this study is to thoroughly evaluate and analyze the crisis communication styles used by two different businesses during a public relations crisis. The two styles to be analyzed are that of JetBlue after their 2007 crisis, and that of Abercrombie and Fitch after their 2013 crisis. These crisis management styles will be compared to the fundamentals of crisis communication using content analysis, and the success or failure of both strategies will be reviewed. The project will conclude with suggestions regarding further research into crisis communication methods and their effectiveness.

Review of Literature

This research paper will use two main types of literature for analysis: scholarly and professional articles, and press articles.

The first scholarly sources to be analyzed provide an overview of crisis management. These sources are the article Crisis Management in Hindsight: Cognition, Communication, Coordination, and Control; and the book Public Relations Practices: Managerial Case Studies and Problems.

The next articles focus on the specific crises faced by JetBlue and Abercrombie and Fitch, respectively. “ The Handbook of Crisis Communication” and “JetBlue’s Survival School” examine JetBlue’s crisis management campaign. “Abercrombie & Fitch: Crisis Management” and “Corporate Reputation Crisis in the Digital Age…”  offer the same type of content focused on the crisis management style of Abercrombie and Fitch.

Finally, press pieces will be included to provide contextual evidence for public opinion and media reporting of the situations.

Research Methodology

In the following section, this research paper will highlight two corporate crises and evaluate the use of crisis communication management by each company involved. Using this research method, information about both companies will be gathered and analyzed so that determinations can be made about the most successful, and least successful, elements of each company’s crisis management style. Both styles will be compared to one another and to the fundamental basics of crisis management, and recommendations for further research will be discussed.

Results and Discussion

In order to accurately analyze the success of a company’s crisis management technique, one must first understand the basics of crisis communication and public relations. “A critical component of emergency response is cognition — that is, the capacity to recognize the degree of emerging risk to which a community is exposed and to act on that information,” (Comfort, 2007, p. 189). Simply being aware of a crisis does not constitute crisis management or crisis communication. Instead, decisions must be made and explanations must be given, as crisis management is an active undertaking as opposed to a passive one.

Standard public relations practices give businesses a basic outline on how to communicate during a crisis. This model consists of the following fundamental guidelines: “anticipate the unexpected, institute and practice a crisis communication plan for those events that may happen to your organization, train employees in what to do in these circumstances, [and] have one spokesperson communicating to the public and media during the crisis,” (Center et. al., 2007, p. 268). When a business does not follow the PR fundamental guidelines, they can find themselves unprepared to handle a crisis when it arises. It is important to note, however, that even businesses that follow the PR model closely must be able to use their cognitive abilities, and their field experience, to make effective decisions during difficult situations.

In 2007, budget airline JetBlue found itself in the midst of a crisis with nearly no guidelines for crisis management in place. The airline had built its reputation to that point on customer service and rarely cancelling flights, so when a winter storm was on it’s way to JFK Airport, JetBlue crew planned to wait it out. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t change, and by the time JetBlue began to consider cancelling the flights, the airplanes – and their passengers – had been stuck in the sleet hoping to takeoff for seven hours.

Although JetBlue eventually did cancel the flights and work with customers to reschedule their travel, the media coverage and public scrutiny were intense. People questioned how JetBlue had gotten into this situation in the first place. According to JetBlue founder David Neelman, “the group charged with aligning flight crews with aircraft was far too small to and overwhelmed to effectively tackle the problem” (Coombs & Holladay, 2010, p. 123). Additionally, “communication breakdowns and a lack of cross-training throughout the company…hindered efforts to restore any sense of normalcy,” (Coombs & Holladay, 2010, p. 124). It was clear to the media that JetBlue had not followed the first three fundamental guidelines of crisis management. They did not anticipate having to cancel flights, they did not have a crisis communication plan in place for the situation, and employees were not trained on how to handle it.

Thankfully for JetBlue, the one thing they did get right ended up saving their reputation. JetBlue followed the fourth PR guideline of having one person speak to the public. This meant that the story from the company never changed, and there was one cohesive message on every news program and talk show the spokesperson appeared on. That spokesperson was the CEO of the company himself, David Neelman. “Rather than hide behind his desk and speak through a flunky, Neeleman stepped up. He assessed the situation early on and spoke to the press. He explained exactly what went wrong and apologized,” (Weiss, 2007, para 3). By doing this, JetBlue was able to change the conversation in the media. Instead of only reporting on the crisis, media outlets were now also reporting on JetBlue’s upcoming policy changes, and the humble apology from the CEO. JetBlue bounced back from their crisis utilizing this cohesive voice.

Abercrombie and Fitch has long been a controversial, but successful brand. However, a 2013 crisis lead to a PR fiasco and a serious lapse in crisis communication management that may continue to have lasting negative effects for the company. In 2013, a Business Insider article republished comments that Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries had made seven years earlier. The gist of these comments was that Abercrombie and Fitch was a brand for fit, cool, attractive young people, and that people who those labels did not apply to should not be wearing A&F clothing. The republishing of Jeffries comments went viral, and many think pieces, videos, articles, and essays were written about his statements and the company’s flawed policies in other areas of operation. Abercrombie and Fitch quickly realized that this was not the kind of controversy that could help turn a profit, and it was clear that they too did not have a plan in place that utilized the fundamentals of crisis management.

Like JetBlue, A&F had not anticipated this type of crisis might happen and did not have a clear crisis communication plan in place. Additionally, Jeffries did not have the appropriate knowledge to know how to avoid such a controversy in the first place. Post crisis, A&F attempted to communicate with consumers through an apologetic Facebook post by Jeffries. The language of the apology, however, did not appear to be humble or genuine to many readers. The apology was “widely reported as only a “semi-apology”. Many of the comments in response on Facebook expressed people’s lack of acceptance of Jeffries’ explanation, and accusations that he only put out a statement because A&F sales were dropping,” (Chen, 2016, para 7). While the apology utilized a fundamental element of crisis communication – the use of one voice – the lack of perceived sincerity made the attempt nearly fruitless.

The crisis continued to build as social media outcry turned into petitions  requesting that Abercrombie and Fitch begin carrying large and extra large clothing for women. Women of this size had been deemed “uncool” by Jeffries, and the public demanded they now be included. It became clear to A&F leaders that the apology from Jeffries was not enough to turn the tide for the company. Abandoning the one clear voice element of crisis management, A&F went to work addressing concerns, and promising consumers they would begin selling larger sizes for women.

Despite their attempts at following the PR crisis communication guidelines after the fact, their actions were seen by many as too little, too late. “Even though A&F had successfully built an image that attracts its target audiences, ultimately, it underestimated the power of social media and lacked strong relationships with its consumers, investors and employees to successfully defend its position or turn the situation to the company’s advantage,” (Perng, 2015, p. 35).

Abercrombie and Fitch leaders seem to have learned from their communication management crisis. Business Insider reported in 2015 that the company “endured a more than two-year-long run of declining sales that eventually led to the ouster of longtime CEO Mike Jeffries,” (Udland, 2015, para 6), but with a new CEO and a new marketing strategy, Abercrombie stores are starting to build back their fan base. The lack of communication crisis repeats in recent years suggests that A&F has likely put preventative policies in place, and may have strengthened their crisis communication management plan as well.

Directions for Future Research

Both JetBlue and Abercrombie and Fitch provide us with unique information on handling a corporate crisis. However, these are merely two case studies. Certain variables are not addressed within this research paper that require further research. The questions for further researchers to pose include:

  • Does industry affect whether a crisis communication plan will be successful?
  • How do crisis communication plans differ between lethal and non lethal crises?
  • What has changed in crisis communication over the last 10 years?
  • What successful crisis communication plans have been developed that are not based on the PR fundamentals?

By researching these questions, we can develop a stronger understanding of the many variables involved in the development, implementation, and success of crisis communication styles. Crises are nearly inevitable in any business, thus this is a topic that will continue to be relevant and should be revisited regularly by PR and communications experts.

References

Center, A. H., Jackson, P., Smith, S., Stansberry, F. R. (2007) Public Relations Practices:
Managerial Case Studies and Problems. (7th ed). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:
Pearson Prentice Hall.

Chen, L. (2016, April 12). Abercrombie & Fitch: Crisis Management.

Comfort, L. K. (2007). Crisis Management in Hindsight: Cognition, Communication,
Coordination, and Control. Public Administration Review, 189.

Coombs, W. T., Holladay, S. J. (2010). The Handbook of Crisis Communication. West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Perng, C. (2015). Corporate reputation crisis in the digital age: a comparative study on Abercrombie & Fitch’s reputation crisis in the U.S., China and Taiwan. University of Southern California Dissertations and Theses, 35.

Udland, M. (2015, September 15). One of the biggest retail disasters of the last 3 years is finally cool again. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/abercrombie-and-fitch-disaster-might-be-over-2015-9

Weiss, T. (2007, February 20). Jetblue’s survival school. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/2007/02/20/neeleman-jet-blue-lead-cx_tw_0220jetblueceo.html

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