2019: A Look Back on the Year in Crisis

Thom Weidlich 12.19.19


Well, that was the crisis communications year that was. It didn’t disappoint. From corporate America to the political sphere to Hollywood to the wide world of sports, we were reassured that companies, nonprofits, other organizations, and individuals can easily screw up crisis response. Yet, some counterexamples glittered.

Without question the biggest crisis of the year was Boeing, which was forced to ground its 737 Max planes after a second deadly accident. Its communications over this have not glowed. There’s little hope for improvement, given that the company is determined to blame everyone but itself. It did, however, recently suspend production of the 737 Max altogether.

The vaping crisis loomed large, with market newcomer and dominator Juul Labs taking a big hit. Its response has been inadequate, even with regard to vaping-connected illness, for which it doesn’t seem to be responsible. As for the teen-vaping epidemic, it will be interesting to watch how Juul deals with flavored e-cigs being banned from sea to shining sea.

As for the cyber area, although CNBC lists it as only the third-biggest data breach of the year (after Zynga and Dubsmash), Capital One’s intrusion was certainly the most newsworthy. That’s especially true because it involved Amazon Web Services and a former employee thereof. At the time (this summer), we tweaked the bank for downplaying the seriousness of the data taken. We were also able to point out criticisms of Amazon’s communications response.

Then there’s Felicity Huffman. The actress (pictured) was famously snagged in the scandal over rich-and-famous parents ponying up money to cheat their kids’ way into elite colleges and universities (a major crisis of the year affecting a lot of people). Huffman’s response of (almost) immediately admitting guilt — and emitting the most heartfelt mea culpa in a long time — will replace Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol case as the epitome of great crisis communications.

Opioid Crisis

How times have changed. Johnson & Johnson had a tough year. Known for not shying from litigation, even trials, it got whacked with several multimillion-, even multibillion-, dollar verdicts. An Oklahoma judge reached a $572 million verdict (later lowered to $465 million, but still…) after a trial concerning opioids. “Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” J&J General Counsel Michael Ullmann said in the company’s lengthy statement (Janssen is a J&J subsidiary).

In October J&J was hit with an $8 billion verdict in a Risperdal case, and it faces massive litigation (and a federal probe) over alleged asbestos in its talcum powder (a $325 million verdict came down in May). In October, it recalled 33,000 bottles of talc because it found traces of asbestos.

Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma.

— J&J General Counsel Michael Ullmann

Another big issue was too many people’s unfortunate proximity to sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. Convicted in 2008, he was again arrested in July and (allegedly) committed suicide in August. The renewal of the allegations caused many people and institutions to try to distance themselves from the philandering (and worse) philanthropist. These included L Brands (Victoria’s Secret) Chairman Leslie H. Wexner, Bill Clinton, a bevy of scientists, MIT Media Lab, and Prince Andrew. This last, especially, has fumbled in his response. He did a BBC interview so bad it shall live in infamy.

In early November, McDonald’s canned CEO Steve Easterbrook for having a consensual affair with an employee in violation of company policy. It was rightfully lauded for doing so.

In the political world, we had the February accusation that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam appeared in a photo on his page in his 1984 medical-school yearbook dressed in either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan outfit. He held a crazy press conference and, despite almost universal calls for him to resign, he remains in office.

Hamptons Fundraiser

Then there was the trouble brought on by real-estate billionaire Stephen Ross’s announcement that he was holding a fundraiser at his Hamptons home for Donald Trump. Ross chairs the company that owns a controlling interest in Equinox Fitness and its SoulCycle subsidiary. When the backlash against the fundraiser came, those brands were forced to respond. And not that well.

The sports world did not disappoint on the crisis front. We had Patriots owner Robert Craft being arrested for allegedly soliciting sex in February, Nike having to respond (nimbly) to Duke University basketball star Zion Williamson’s sneaker splitting apart on the court, and professional golfer Matt Kuchar being accused of stiffing his caddy after he won a tournament in Mexico.

The Houston Astros baseball team had a tough crisis year. It was accused of stealing signs of opposing teams. Before that, it was excoriated for its abysmal handling of an incident in which an assistant general manager harangued a group of female reporters in the clubhouse; it eventually fired the executive.

As for indoor sports, Peloton was recently pelted for running an ad that some viewed as sexist. The exercise-bike maker took the interesting crisis communications approach of not pulling the ad, not backing down, and not apologizing.

After a brief holiday respite, we will look forward to new crises in the new year.

Photo Credit: RoidRanger/Shutterstock

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