Crisis Communication

Archive for the ‘Case Study’ Category

The Bhopal gas tragedy would be a nightmare of a case to handle. At the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, toxic gases were released. More than 2,000 people died immediately. It is estimated that 8,000 died within the two weeks following in addition to the approximate 16,000 more who have died from disease related to the incident. It is said that the crisis was caused by an sabotage.

From a crisis communications standpoint, getting a good idea of the situation would have been difficult considering the distance between India and the US (Hendrix). Considering this, I think a decent job managing the crisis was done.

According to Hendrix, Union Carbide made some very important decisions early on. The company decided to accept responsibility using an attachment/forgiveness strategy and provide aid to victims. I think this strategy was very effective because it showed the public that they were not denying what had happened and gave people the feeling that Union Carbide would attempt to take care of the situation.

It also was decided to be available to and share information with the media. Union Carbide:

  • Held press conferences
  • Hosted press tours
  • Had key people available for interviews
  • Issued press releases

In the book Public Relations Cases by Hendrix, the fact sheet shown has a large amount of information and is organized effectively. Although the incident occurred more than 20 years ago, the same principles apply: short, concise writing.

Included in the fact sheet is information on the incident, the cause, who is taking responsibility, legalities, settlement information, relief efforts, medical assistance, medical effects, status of the plant in Bhopal and litigation.There also is environmental and safety information about the company’s safety record, safety and environmental goals and achievements and improvements made to training and procedures.

Union Carbide also had to keep its internal audiences informed, which was done through employee news bulletins, employee publications, video messages, newsletters, annual stockholder meetings and individual letters and phone calls.

Now, Union Carbide would have to worry about blogs, Twitter and more. From the standpoint of 20 years ago though, this case was handled probably the best it could have been considering the number of deaths and distance from the incident.



After Dominos employees made a video of them tampering with food, it was posted on YouTube. Before the video was removed, it had received almost one million views.

Although the employees claim none of the food they tampered with was served, the video and media coverage caused damage to the company. The president of the company posted a YouTube response:

In the video, he reassures customers and tells people exactly what is being done to make things better. There also is a very active Twitter account, linked to the YouTube page of the video, which was used to respond to customer’s concerns.

Due to social media, corporate responses need to be immediate. According to AdAge, it took the company about 48 hours to be fully responsive. The company’s first strategy seemed to be “wait and see,” with hopes it would blow over.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the president of Levick Strategic Communications, Richard Levick, “gives an F to Domino’s response for the first 24 hours, but an A for everything after.”

In AdAge, Levick suggested companies do several things to prepare for a crisis; (1) Identify who you need during a crisis, from PR to HR, (2) Be prepated for worst-case scenarios, (3) Own SEO keywords you may need in a crisis, (4) Be connected online, (5) Respond as soon as possible.

I’m not sure if it was a strategic move or not, but I’ve realized a lot of the negative coverage has been replaced with news releases and stories about Domino’s new pasta bowls. But, Time suggested they take a “commercial break” to let things cool down.

What I think

The biggest mistake Domino’s made was that they waited to respond. I also wonder if they had a crisis plan in place for a situation such as this. Food tampering is a common enough occurence, but it seems that many companies still have not grasped how much social media can affect a crisis situation.

I think the YouTube video response was a good idea. Many people still searched for the video and this was at the top of the results. Having the president of the company respond and tell exactly what the company was doing also was effective.

I agree with Todd Defren that having a social media presence before the crisis would have bought the company more credibility and time. Domino’s started a Twitter account after the video had been aired. Had a Twitter account already been set up, they probably would have been alerted to the video much more quickly and already had followers to respond to.

Domino’s has probably realized that they need to monitor the Web much more closely. It’s actually very simple. I have a Google Alert for my name that is delivered to my Reader daily.


Seven people died in 1982 after taking Tylenol capsules, which had been tampered with and contaminated with cyanide. According to Effective Crisis Management, Tylenol’s market share quickly went from 37 percent to only seven percent.

Johnson & Johnson faced a huge challenge. Not only did the company have to manage the crisis communication of just Tylenol, but also of the entire company’s reputation.

J&J recalled approximately 31 million bottles of Tylenol from across the country and stopped all advertising.

On the first day of the crisis, the Tylenol poisonings were the top story for all three broadcast outlets. By the end of the crisis, there had been more than 100,000 news stories run in newspapers.

According to an analysis on the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Communication Web site, a seven-member team was put together by James Burke, J&J’s chairman. His first focus was to protect the people and his second focus was saving the product. The company also used the media to issue alerts and held several press conferences at the corporate headquarters with a live satellite feed. There also was an 800-number available for consumers.

Some say J&J set a standard for crisis communication when they “assumed responsibility by ensuring public safety first and recalled all of their capsules from the market,” despite the fact that the bottles were tampered with after reaching the shelves.

Tylenol was reintroduced into the market with triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging, offered coupons for the products, created a new discounted pricing program, new advertising campaign and gave more than 2,250 presentations to the medical community.

According to Managing Crises Before They Happen (Mitroff, 2001), J&J actually increased their credibility during the crisis because of the candidness of the executives.

Notre Dame expert Professor Patrick Murphy said J&J set a “gold standard” in regards to business ethics as well because J&J was proactive and transparent.

What I think

Although J&J handled this crisis well, I think it would be a totally different situation if it happened today due to social media and the immediacy of communication.

What I believe was most effective how J&J kept the media informed and was transparent.  It also was good to have the strategy team set up, although it would have been better if a team was already planned in case of situations like this.


Dell Inc. Battery Recall Case Study
Silver-Anvil Award Winner

From tgdaily.comIn 2006, Dell voluntarily recalled 4.2 million lithium-ion batteries. The batteries, under certain conditions, could overheat and cause fire. The media had previously noted a Dell laptop going up in smoke and another that had melted.

It was the “largest recall in the history of consumer electronics,” (Case Study, PRSA Silver-Anvil Award Winner). According to Time Magazine, the recall affected 15% of laptops sold from 2004 to 2006.

Following a leak to the press, Dell launched its communication plans about 12 hours early. According to the case study, “Dell became a model for how a company could rapidly and accurately respond to its customers.”

Dell provided a Web site – – with details and instructions for customer. There also was a customer service line available.

Although Dell handled the crisis, the batteries were actually manufactured by Sony.

Time Magazine quoted Richard Shim, a PC industry analyst:

“Shim says that Dell, hit by bad publicity that could harm consumer sales, took this opportunity to reach out to its customers. ‘It’s part of a long-term strategy to build back the trust of consumers,’ he says.”

Dell’s credibility was negativly affected with headlines such as “Dell laptop become a flamethrower.”

But, the open dialogue and effectiveness of the recall probably helped Dell’s image. Dell was the first company to address the issue of the Sony batteries. According to the case study, “Dell initiated the recall on the basis of six incidents among almost 20 million batteries in the marketplace.”

Picture from

Motrin Moms
Case Study

Crisis Description

In September, Motrin launched a new ad campaign online and in magazines.  The ad, which you can see above, focuses on how wearing a baby can give you a backache. It also gives the impression that baby slings are worn as a fashion statement.

After the ad aired, there was an online explosion of negative PR. One story in USA Today said it perfectly: “Offended moms get tweet revenge over Motrin ads.” The controversy also was one of Advertising Age’s Stories of the Year.

Jessica Gottlieb posted her response to the ad on Twitter, a popular micro-blogging platform. A Twitter hashtag, #MotrinMoms, began to be used when other moms joined the conversation.

The viral controversy spread throughout the various social media outlets. Women, like this one, posted their response on YouTube. There are currently more than 1,300 members of the Facebook group boyotting Motrin.

A graph of the viral activity is available here.

The ad agency wasn’t really aware of what was going on at first, according to Joyce Schwarz.

Social Media Communication

This crisis is a great lesson in how quickly things can go viral through social media. Social media offers the opportunity to engage and enter in a dialogue with an audience. You can see a graph of the viral activity here.

With the rise of social media, companies need to begin to at least track what is being said on blogs, Twitter and other media. They also should consider taking part in social media in order to build relationships with their audiences.

Shannon Paul, who works in new media communications, said in a blog post, “At some point, merely listening won’t be enough. More brands, especially big brands, will either need to learn to engage in social media culture at all levels, or enlist the help of social media natives to carry the message to the community.”

Crisis Communication

The apology below (from the Mom 101 blog) was sent to some of the bloggers who protested the campaign.

I am the Vice President of Marketing for McNeil Consumer Healthcare. I have responsibility for the Motrin Brand, and am responding to concerns about recent advertising on our website. I am, myself, a mom of 3 daughters.

We certainly did not mean to offend moms through our advertising. Instead, we had intended to demonstrate genuine sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their babies. We believe deeply that moms know best and we sincerely apologize for disappointing you. Please know that we take your feedback seriously and will take swift action with regard to this ad. We are in process of removing it from our website. It will take longer, unfortunately, for it to be removed from magazine print as it is currently on newstands and in distribution.

This apology was on Motrin’s Web site (found at this blog):

With regard to the recent Motrin advertisement, we have heard you.

On behalf of McNeil Consumer Healthcare and all of us who work on the Motrin Brand, please accept our sincere apology.

We have heard your complaints about the ad that was featured on our website. We are parents ourselves and take feedback from moms very seriously.

We are in the process of removing this ad from all media. It will, unfortunately, take a bit of time to remove it from our magazine advertising, as it is on newsstands and in distribution.

Thank you for your feedback. Its very important to us.”

Kathy Widmer
Vice President of Marketing
McNeil Consumer Healthcare

Seth Godin said that the apology sounded as if it was put together by a committee.  Blueprint Creative Group said there was a need for a more sincere statement.

Advertising Age’s Tom Martin said Motrin may have overreacted. By simply “shutting down,” Motrin missed out on an opportunity to engage in a conversation with its consumers. According to Wired, only about 1,000 Twitter users responded, out of an estimated 3 million users.

Comparing to Other Situations

In crisis communication, the apology to an audience is very important. It gives the company an opportunity to acknowledge the problem and inform the audience of how the problem will be fixed. Motrin might have looked to other controversial crises for ideas.

In a 2007 crisis, JetBlue’s CEO gave an unscripted apology after its crisis (Public Relations Strategist, 2007).

Motrin’s vice president of marketing was the one to apologize in this situation, which was appropriate since it was an ad campaign controversy. But, it also might have helped if the CEO was more involved.

In the Rutgers University crisis, President Francis Lawrence made an apology in a statement to the press, then in 48,000 letters to the community and also in person at campus meetings. He also focused on open meetings with his constituents (Public Relations Strategist, 1995).

But, if Motrin had done more than apologize online (for example, if they had done a live press conference), more attention would have been drawn to the ad. This would have increased awareness of the problem and may have caused more of a problem.

Motrin did keep the apology short and did not try to justify their actions. Motrin also stated what was to be done to correct the situation, which is another important factor in crisis communication and apologies.

What could have been done differently

One problem was the slowness of updating a Web site.

“If your site has to be taken down in order to respond to a crisis, re-design it so that it can be updated quickly and easily without having to throw your organization and agencies into a panic,” said David Armano on Logic + Emotion.

I think that having an established social media presence also would have been immensely helpful for Motrin.

Blueprint Creative Group said in a post that you need to monitor more than just traditional media. Tracking social media conversations about your company is very important. Google Alerts and Twitter Alerts are easy ways to this.

If I were in Motrin’s PR department, I would suggest starting a parenting blog sponsored by Motrin. The blog wouldn’t write about Motrin, but focus more on useful parenting tips and maybe feature some of the more prominent “mommy bloggers.”

After establishing a blog presence, Motrin could expand its audience with micro parenting tips and ideas through Twitter. A credible Twitter account would have assisted in a more immediate response to the tweets about the ad campaign.

The blog also would have a secondary purpose: giving Motrin access to its target audience. Motrin would have the opportunity to feel out ad campaigns before launching them.

For example, Motrin could have found out what mothers think about baby slings if they had been using social media. Motrin would have then realized the ad campaign was off target if they had been utilizing a social media community through a blog or Twitter account.

Sandra Fathi, president of Affect Strategies and chair of the New Media and Technology Committee of PRSA’s New York Chapter, said Twitter can be used to foster customer loyalty (Public Relations Tactics, 2008).

“Companies can search tweets from their customers to see what questions and critiques they may have,” Fathi said.

With reputation management, “companies can search tweets from their customers to see what questions and critiques they may have,” (Fathi, 2008).

In regards to trends and news,  Twitter is “a great place to listen to chatter in the market and follow key influencers to learn what they are discovering on a daily basis,” (Fathi).

If Motrin had kept its eye on social media before, the company may have realized the negative feedback before it turned into a crisis.


News Sources:

Industry Sources:

Blog Sources:

Print Sources:

Fathi, Sandra. (Oct. 2008). “From generating awareness to managing reputations: Why your company needs to Twitter.” Public Relations Tactics.

Langley, James M. (Winter 1995). Vol 1, No 4. “Lessons learned from Rutgers’ racial ruckus.” Public Relations Strategist.