For those of you who don’t remember the 1941 fictional business-love story of the same name, it is about the richest man in the world, J.P. Merrick. (Get it? Even the opening credits begin with a tongue-in-cheek reminder that the movie is fictional and asks not once but twice to “please not sue us!”) So private is Mr. Merrick that he hasn’t been photographed in 20 years, that is, until 400 of his employees at one of his smallest investments — Neely’s Department Store — threaten to go on strike, hanging his likeness in effigy, making the front page of the New York Times in a large, above-the-fold photo. For those of you not old enough to know about newspapers, they were the Facebook of their time.
Enraged by this violation of his privacy and fearful that the protest will go viral – such as it was 80 years ago – he decides to go undercover in the store as a shoe salesman (selling cozy slippers), to identify and outsmart the troublemakers. It’s 1941, after all, so even though the movie is decades ahead of its time, it ends with him falling in love with an employee, taking on the workers’ burdens, and making all well.
It may be nearly a century ago, but the fear of unwanted transparency, humiliation, unrest and financial harm is nothing new. It’s always been a part of every economic, government and theological enterprise.
When I speak to directors, as I did this past week (virtually) at the Institute for Excellence in Corporate Governance at the University of Texas, Dallas, or to business leaders, the questions always include this one that’s hard to answer: “How do we deal with the threat of a viral crisis?” Short of a magic wand (often the preferred response), the answer is time.
In The Devil and Miss Jones, though anxious for things to move more quickly, the fictional Mr. Merrick has weeks. In 1982, James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol crisis had four and a half days. In 2010, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, had hours. Today, if a crisis has happened, we have to go back in time to be ready.
On September 20, 2006, then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, criticizing U.S. foreign policy and referring to then-President George W. Bush repeatedly as “the devil.” The political reaction was swift but the business impact even swifter. The Florida legislature voted almost immediately to cancel the highway contract for CITGO, which has a direct relationship with PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company. Soon, other state legislatures were considering the idea and the very existence of CITGO, a U.S. owned company, was immediately and fundamentally threatened. No state highway contracts, no CITGO. Over the next two weeks, we were able to work with critical but fair high authority bloggers, traditional media, editorial page editors, activists and lobbyists to build a political wall and help save the other state contracts and, with it, CITGO. Today, that kind of remarkable victory would not be possible without the ability to buy time. Social media and activists move too quickly to respond. You have to anticipate so you can react instantaneously. That means engaging a sophisticated level of information tracking and analysis before matters go viral.
Fourteen years later, when corporate criticism goes viral, it is already too late for all but the largest companies and entities with extraordinary resources, including artificial intelligence. What are smaller companies and organizations to do in addition to intelligence gathering and analysis when caught in the crossfire? Something that happens every day. Threats of boycotts, vitriolic online criticism, ugly customer interactions, media onslaughts. Once the Johnstown flood of criticism is unleashed, no finger in the leaking dike strategy is going to work.
Two weeks ago, a photo of a Goodyear diversity training slide went viral, which showed #BLM and LGBT attire as acceptable but Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter and MAGA as unacceptable. Within days, President Trump called for a boycott. Caught in the maelstrom were the independent Goodyear tire dealers on the front lines. I did a lengthy interview with Tire Review (you will be forgiven if you don’t already subscribe) outlining a number of recommendations; we provide additional recommendations below.
We are all public figures now. It’s just a matter of time before we are the target.
Use your peacetime wisely.
Prepare now, before you are under the klieg lights. Ask your communications team what they would do if under attack and prepare all of your resources now. Once you are under attack by the angry mob, few if any third parties will volunteer to be in the line of fire; controlling the narrative will be a near impossibility. Since all arguments are largely emotional, not factual, the truth will not set you free.
It’s not the crisis plan but the crisis DNA.
It’s not that crisis plans are useless, but they tend to give a false sense of assurance. When airbags were first mandatory in cars, fatality rates didn’t initially go down because drivers felt impervious. Crisis plans tend to leave us thinking we are ready when the only thing that gets us truly ready are the crisis training drills. While not what the late Senator John McCain meant at the time, “Drill, baby, drill,” is wise advice. The more you test your crisis response, the more your teams will be ready when the time comes…and it will come. Nota bene, under fire, most people freeze.
Fiddle before Rome burns.
You cannot scenario-plan for every scenario. Do you think Goodyear had a plan for a viral HR slide photographed and taken out of context? But you can identify third party supporters now, who you engage and embrace; draft dark web pages which have helpful content which you can post later if and when needed; locate pictures that helpfully tell your stories (people view, they don’t read); describe your narrative, history, diversity, culture and so on so it is already accurately and helpfully on display; produce videos which engage third parties, show your culture, portray your narrative, etc.; implement a strategic optimization campaign so that your messages are at the top of Google (along with your third parties and videos) and on and on. Crisis preparation is a marathon – not a miracle. Preparing ahead of time is the only way to win. In the Goodyear example, there were dealers who avoided most of the criticism, but more so because of how they prepared and instantly responded, rather than how they responded after the fire began.
And one last thing. In the movie, with the CITGO highway contracts and at the Goodyear dealers, the one thing that worked every time was “being local.” That is, J.P. Merrick gets to know the protesters and they him; CITGO’s multifaceted campaign included a years’ long advertising campaign called “Fueling Good,” emphasizing local ownership of your neighborhood gas stations; and the Goodyear dealers who were the most successful were the ones who emphasized their neighborhood roots. Being local and a good neighbor, it seems, is one of the swiftest ways to the heart and the ear. When we know someone, even an adversary, is also a neighbor, we usually take the time to at least listen. We are members of many different tribes – religion, nationality, economic strata, political affiliation, brand identity – and one of them is our neighborhood. Mr. Rogers was right all along. “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Enjoy the read, look forward and drive safely.
LEVICK is a strategic crisis communications and public relations firm located in Washington, DC. Our experts support businesses across industries by providing communications strategy and reputation management services.