For years, those of of us who work in (or teach) marketing communications have been relying upon a few aging case histories of public relations disasters. Our moldy old textbooks have presented the Tylenol “tainted capsule” deaths in Chicago as an example of a company handling things quite well. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, however, has wallowed around in the “what not to do” end of that spectrum.
Recently – and unfortunately – we’ve come up with some marvelous new candidates we can use to update those textbooks. Do the names “Toyota” or “BP” ring any bells?
I don’t for a moment claim that either of those situations is done; obviously they are not. But I’ve seen plenty of Toyota’s “we’re working hard to fix things” commercials. And that Tony Blair-ish CEO from BP is on TV more often than Two-and-a-Half Men, and seems every bit as sincere as Charlie Sheen’s character in that sitcom.
But as I watch those damage-control efforts, it strikes me that whatever they say, it’s a little too late. The public’s opinion about these companies was largely formed long before either of these situations hit the news. And that’s why Toyota is already enjoying sales boosts again, while BP continues to dominate the headlines.
I did not do this research, but wish I had. Let’s say a year ago, you asked 100 people what they thought about each company. I’m quite convinced that the general opinion of Toyota would have been something like this (excluding those still guided by general anti-Japanese, buy-American sentiments):
“They sure make dependable cars, if not very exciting ones. I wish American car makers could really get the quality down like that, but they just can’t seem to do it. I guess if I wanted a car that would last longer, have good resale value, and not spend much time in the shop, I’d go with Toyota.”
For BP, my guess is the composite answer would be something like this:
“They make more money than God. The gas prices go to record highs, and they report the largest profits in corporate history. Price seems to go up whenever it’s a “driving” weekend, and they blame some obscure thing in some far away place. All they care about is money.”
Now, don’t shoot the messenger here. I know American car companies claim to have narrowed or even eliminated the quality gap, and I believe that they have made great strides in that direction. And I know that Toyota hasn’t behaved in an admirable and forthright manner in its investigations and reactions to the alleged accelerator problems.
I also realize that BP probably has plenty of substance behind its arguments, and can explain quite clearly why its record profits are justified.
But I’m just a marketing guy sitting here thinking about how Toyota has already been largely “forgiven” (it seems to me) while BP seems to be drifting more aimlessly than its renegade oil slicks. And my personal opinion is that it has far less to do with their “crisis plans” and how they’ve responded to current events than the goodwill they’ve built up over the last few decades. The seeds of public goodwill were sown (or not) long ago.
I wish that I could get hold of every fancy “Corporate Crisis Management Plan” laying in the desk drawers of every executive in corporate America, and insert a new first page.
It would simply say the very best “first step” in dealing with a crisis doesn’t happen after the crisis occurs. It happens today, and every day, in establishing your company as someone that consumers and your other key “publics” like and trust.
That first page would contain one simple message:
To minimize a crisis later, do the right thing TODAY.