The Worst- and Best-Handled Crisis Communications of 2020
Today, we unveil our list of the worst- and best-handled crisis communications of 2020. PRCG | Haggerty LLC compiles its list with the help of its CrisisResponsePro database of more than 12,000 public statements issued by companies facing a crisis or litigation communications event. The 2020 list is our take on the worst and best, based on this analysis.
“With the year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests and the election, we saw a number of high-profile crises related to those areas,” said James F. Haggerty, CEO of PRCG | Haggerty.
Haggerty added: “It is interesting that while the White House medical team’s response to President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis was our worst-handled crisis, sports-related PR responses were more represented than in past years — not surprising given the complete shutdown of the industry for months and all of the PR issues that sprang from that.”
THE TOP FIVE WORST
- The White House Medical Team
When Donald Trump caught the coronavirus and was hospitalized, White House doctor Sean Conley led several disastrous press conferences in front of the hospital. The physician and his team broke nearly every rule of communications during a crisis and were severely selective as to the information they would divulge about the president’s health. This went beyond concerns related to the health-information privacy law; they did release some information. Journalists and others were especially frustrated by Conley’s coyness on the question of whether Trump had been given supplemental oxygen. His rationalization was that he was trying to be “upbeat.” A bad situation quickly became worse.
- Washington NFL Team
The professional football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins had two major crises this year: continued uproar over its name, which it finally, belatedly agreed to change, and a sexual-harassment problem, which, alas, is not unusual for sports teams. Charitably, its responses to both weren’t great. The name change took too long and was begrudging. As for the other, The Washington Post reported that 15 women who formerly worked for the team said they were sexually harassed during their employment, most of whom were anonymous. The team refused to release them from their nondisclosure agreements. It provided a statement to the Post in which it said it hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations. Owner Dan Snyder, who is not implicated in the behavior, then put out a weak statement, in which he said the team would implement any changes suggested by the investigation. But it shouldn’t wait until then.
- U.S. Soccer Federation
The U.S. Soccer Federation’s legal response in March to a lawsuit from women players arguing they were paid less than the men was met with much derision. Soccer’s governing body said the women’s national team shouldn’t be paid as much as the men’s team because they’re not as strong or as fast as the men and don’t have to deal with as much scrutiny during road games. Even advertisers responded; Volkswagen said it was “disgusted.” The federation’s president, Carlos Cordeiro, issued an apology and resigned. “Last week’s legal filing was an error,” said his replacement, Cindy Parlow Cone. The USSF also replaced its law firm. Ironically, in May the judge dismissed the equal-pay portions of the lawsuit. But the situation was a perfect example of how a reasonable legal strategy can be a terrible communications strategy. On Dec. 1, it was announced that the two sides settled their disagreements on working conditions, paving the way for the women to appeal the negative equal-pay ruling.
Nikola Corp., which aspires to make battery- and hydrogen-run trucks, was faced with a short-seller’s reportaccusing the company of being a fraud. Nikola responded with a short statement decrying the report, and then a longer one that went further into the accusations. But some of the defenses were hard to swallow. The biggest was its concession that a video showing one of its prototypes moving down a hill was not doing so of its own volition; the company said it never argued it moved on its own. At least founder Trevor Milton resigned as chairman. U.S. regulators and prosecutors are reportedly investigating the accusations.
CrossFit unhappily found itself in the spotlight when then-CEO Gary Glassman tweeted two words in response to a health-research institute that said, uncontroversially, that racism is a public-health issue. “It’s Floyd-19,” Glassman responded, unwisely conflating the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer. It also later came out that Glassman had told gym owners that same day, “We’re not mourning for George Floyd — I don’t think me or any of my staff are.” Companies had been struggling with how to respond to Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests; Glassman showed how not to do it. The company was remiss in allowing its CEO to put out a message like that without oversight. Many gyms said they would no longer be part of the CrossFit network. Glassman tried to apologize but eventually resigned.
Dishonorable mentions go to: Johnson & Johnson for its (especially litigation) communications around its talc-based baby powder; The State of Qatar for at first downplaying the outrage over strip-searching passengers at its airport; and Whole Foods for its tone-deaf response to criticism of its policy that would prevent Canadian employees from wearing traditional poppies on their uniforms for Remembrance Day.
THE TOP FIVE BEST
The NBA deftly tackled two response and communications challenges this year: the Black Lives Matters protests and COVID-19. With a roster of majority African-American players, the former was especially sensitive. But under the leadership of commissioner Adam Silver, the league has gained a reputation as the savviest in dealing with the crossroads of sports and politics. It allowed players to wear political messages on their jerseys, allowed them to kneel during the national anthem and even painted “Black Lives Matter” on the courts in the Bubble in Orlando, where it played its games during the pandemic. The league’s support of its players’ activism was most critical when the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a playoff game after the death of Jacob Blake, causing the entire league to stop play. Instead of panicking, Silver condoned the players’ united front, setting the stage for a unanimous return to action. The Bubble itself was viewed as highly successful and experienced no COVID-19 outbreak. Its response reportedly relied on its “crisis management guide.” It expertly communicated with its teams, players and fans.
While the slugfest between high-end retailers LVMH and Tiffany might have appeared unseemly, the dueling litigation communications was actually quite impressive. Both companies were determined to make sure the public and investors knew exactly where they stood in the dispute, issuing multiple statements. The conflict arose because, once COVID-19 hit, LVMH didn’t like the price it had agreed to pay to buy Tiffany. LVMH was the cheekier of the two, even attempting a story that the French government had asked it not to go through with the wedding vows. At the time, we asked whether the proposed marriage could be saved. Clearly, it could: In October, the companies announced they’d reached an agreement to go through with it, with LVMH paying slightly less.
- Epic Games
When “Fortnite” creator Epic Games sued Apple and Google over their app-store fees, it had obviously planned out its litigation communications strategy. The conflict arose when Epic allowed gamers to make in-app purchases through “Fortnite” itself rather than going through the Apple or Google marts, a move that violated those companies’ rules. So they tossed Epic out of their stores. Epic immediately sued (also obviously planned), trying to force the behemoths to change their policies. The company released a video within “Fortnite” parodying Apple’s 1984 anti-IBM 1984 Macintosh commercial. Epic also encouraged users to message Apple’s app store, and soon #FreeFortnite was the top-trending hashtag on Twitter. The case is ongoing and Apple has sued Epic, alleging breach of contract.
- Shake Shack
The U.S. federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which sought to help small businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic by making loans, ended up causing mass confusion. For one thing, large companies had a much easier time getting access to the funds. One company that responded with honor was publicly traded Shake Shack. After a backlash, it decided to return the $10 million loan it had received, which it announced in a 2,000-word LinkedIn post. The post went into some detail about how confusing the PPP program was. It was a smart crisis response. The company instead raised $150 million via a new stock issuance.
With the pandemic bringing tourism to a halt in March, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky made “10 years’ worth of decisions in 10 weeks” (as he put it) that earned trust from hosts and customers alike. Those tough calls included overriding individual cancellation policies and refunding more than $1 billion in bookings while simultaneously setting up a $250 million relief fund for hosts. When customers were ready to return to the road, Chesky instituted 24-hour booking buffers between visits and worked with former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the World Health Organization to design a cleaning protocol for the home-sharing giant to match hotel standards. Six months later, more homes are offered on the platform now than before the pandemic. Airbnb touted its $219 million net profit in the third quarter as it went public this month.
Honorable mentions go to: McDonald’s for suing the CEO it fired last year after a second investigation revealed he had sexual relationships with several employees; The Richards Group ad agency, whose founder fired himself after he used racially insensitive remarks in a staff meeting; and KFC for retiring its pandemic-inappropriate tagline “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good” — and communicating that action humorously.
Image Credit: Shutterstock
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