CMOs, Go Beyond a PR Plan to Prepare for an Inevitable Product Crisis

If You Haven't Already Convened Some Serious Internal Firepower, You're Borderline Negligent

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
I'm going to go out on a limb and propose that product crises aren't communications crises. Suggesting otherwise is like giving the play-by-play announcer credit for a sports score, or holding a translator responsible for presenting an untenable negotiating position. Our selective vision makes us focus on how issues are communicated at risk of losing sight of the business reality it narrates. Bad news doesn't influence or have an impact on brands as much as reveal them for what they are. CMOs need to see someone else's misfortune as the opportunity to review and perhaps change how you see your function before the inevitable spotlight finds you.

The first step is to stop seeing crises as somehow "outside" the purview of normal behavior: Customers are surprised; employees chagrined; whatever occurred was an affliction, something that happens to businesses, even if the culpability rests firmly within. Lead paint, wing fasteners that don't fit, or gas pedals that stick are exceptions to policies and perceptions that otherwise remain irresponsibly pure, only they're not and they don't. Crises don't as much violate the status quo as they're an integral part of the outsourced, networked way most big businesses are run. I say they're likely to become the new normal (notice how many major vehicle recalls have happened since Toyota's woes first surfaced). You can depend on facing a major product crisis. The only question is when.

So if you haven't already convened some serious internal firepower to consider your preparation, you're borderline negligent in your CMO-ly duties. Revisiting the PR plan isn't enough, however. I'm talking about analyzing how your business is operationally configured to identify emerging crises and gather resources to respond to them meaningfully and quickly. Again, this is not a PR discussion, it is an executive-level business conversation, so stop carping about being included at the C-suite table and bring something worthy to the meeting. It's probably one of the most important marketing-relevant (and job-keeping) things you could do.

Here's my three-step action plan to help you prepare for your upcoming crisis:

Identify the risks
You and your fellow corporate mucky-mucks could already name the top 10 crises you'd most likely face, and a simple research project on your competitors could confirm it. You know, things you tolerate with one eye closed, like your offshore factories that pay their employees in minutes spent out of their shackles, or the chance that one of the gazillion transistors involved in keeping Part A and Part B of your leading product attached will disconnect unexpectedly. Your auditing programs, philanthropy and other marketing blather won't excuse you when the inevitable occurs (and your risk-assessment studies that inanely tag some failure percentage as "acceptable" seem quaintly hollow), and the pain your brand suffers will be appropriate and deserved. Get real and lead the internal program to name these events, understand in excruciatingly vivid detail how they might impact your business, and analyze what operational changes might be warranted before something fails or explodes. Talk about business, not marketing.

Empower your networks
Do you actually believe that a behemoth of corporate everything like Toyota doesn't have a crisis-communications plan? They all do, and when they don't work, we're supposed to believe it's because they weren't implemented properly. Nope. Talking is pointless, however reassuring or photogenically you deliver it, so your plans need to skip presumptions about "managing" the conversation and instead map what you will ask your employees, vendors, suppliers, and friends and family to do. You can't narrate the problem to them; they're inexorably involved, so what's your strategy to get them taking action? When something bad happens you need spot checks, improvements, whatever. There are no audiences for your crisis, only varying levels of participants.

Commit to decisions
The hardest part about leadership is keeping a level head and trusting your judgment. Most PR crisis plans don't get executed as planned, as the human tendency (and most exhortations from legal counsel) default to inaction. It seems easier to duck, only it isn't. Sticking to a plan is how most stocks on Wall Street get traded, and it's built into the technology that keeps iPhones running and nuclear power plants from melting. As a leader, you need to step up and get your management team to commit to what the business will do when it discovers issues -- public or nascent -- and then help build the processes and systems to deliver those actions. Every little thing that doesn't happen as you've planned will be something you'll waste time publicly apologizing for afterward.

I hope you're not just tsk-tsking the product crisis du jour, but rather taking the substance of true preparedness to the executive boardroom. Identify problem areas. Plan for networked action. Commit to your decisions. You have the most to gain from doing so, and the most to lose if you don't.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author, and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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