The Role of Marketing in Crisis Management

Let's say your CFO just went to jail for cooking the books. A labor union is picketing your business and environmental whistle-blowers have appeared on the six o'clock news alleging that your factory is pumping toxic waste into the river. Some jobs in marketing are focused on executing crisis management strategies because these kinds of situations are, first and foremost, image issues.

To the extent an emergency can be anticipated and planned for, companies call this risk management and take a proactive approach to potential calamity by developing a plan to avoid the threat or address the problem. The critical stage of such a plan is between the onset of the situation and the beginning of any remedial action. It's good to decide in advance what the company policy is about apologies, which tend to admit wrongdoing and could open up the company to legal liabilities.

How the company handles the crisis can make it either a hero or a villain. Take a look at how major companies have handled negative publicity to get an idea of how a bad situation can ultimately make the company look very good.

In 1982 a murderer added cyanide to Tylenol capsules, killing seven people. Johnson & Johnson warned consumers not to take the capsule form and very publicly recalled 31 million capsules at a cost to the company of $100 million.

The toy maker Mattel has successfully handled 28 product recalls, in each case assigning a staff of public relations specialists to contact major media outlets and handle media inquiries.

These are examples of crisis management successes. A quick look at the failures is even more revealing.

Ford and Firestone Tire completely mishandled allegations that the tires on the new Ford Explorer separated from their core, resulting in spectacular accidents. They blamed consumers for not inflating their tires properly. They blamed each other for faulty tires and faulty vehicle design. Neither company ever proposed a solution to the problem or offered assurances it was being addressed-until they were called to testify before Congress.

The BP Gulf oil spill is another case in point. While apologies flowed about as freely as the spilled oil, company executives allowed themselves to be portrayed as uninvolved, uncaring, and off on a carefree jaunt to the polo fields.

Last Updated: 05/21/2014