One wrong word could be the trigger to starting a fight with another person. If you don’t pay enough attention to how you communicate, you might say something inappropriate without meaning to.

Communication crises often occur in our daily lives and can cause both minor and major problems. But if they can damage personal relationships, think about how much harm they can do to a whole brand.

Get to know some crisis communication examples based on what happened to Tesla, Chipotle, and Pepsi so that you can learn from them.

What makes a communication crisis?

In general, crisis communications refer to technologies, systems, and protocols that enable organizations to communicate effectively when facing a disaster.

In public relations, crisis communication is explicitly used to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing public criticism. It’s essential nowadays because news spreads in a flash thanks to the Internet.

The goal of crisis communication is to bring awareness to the type and extent of a crisis and implement specific actions that a brand should undertake to reduce it.

What’s the difference between crisis communications and PR crises?

Public Relations is a broad marketing sector, and distinguishing particular parts of it can be tricky.

A crisis is a circumstance that threatens important expectations and has the potential to affect an organization’s performance and outcomes. It’s a live issue happening in real-time that needs to be taken care of as quickly as possible.

Crises can take various shapes and forms, like scandals, defective products, or unforeseen calamities. They can also be caused by multiple factors, such as extreme weather conditions, cyberattacks, criminal acts, or PR-related agents like media mishaps.

All these incidents gain media attention and potentially destroy the affected company’s reputation in the long term if not appropriately handled.

Crisis communication is the process of gathering, processing, and disseminating information in times of catastrophe.

What else is essential to know regarding crisis communications?

Why companies need a crisis communication action plan

Crises are newsworthy – that’s why brands need to develop strategies to help them react to negative information more quickly and effectively. Even if you think there’s little chance of your brand encountering a crisis, you shouldn’t neglect the risk. As said, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Crisis communication examples of prevention techniques include pre-crisis, in-crisis, and post-crisis actions. The right strategies combined with powerful media monitoring tools can help your team at every stage of the process.

Having this in mind, you should consider implementing a crisis response strategy. You can read about specific tactics in this article to improve your crisis communications strategy.

Okay, enough of the theory. Let’s look at real-life crisis communication examples.

Crisis Communication example no. 1: Tesla Viral Car Crash 2013

What was the situation?

At the end of 2013, a man was driving on a highway just like many of us do every day. When he left his house, he didn’t know that within minutes his car – a Tesla Model S – would burst into flames, turning his world upside down and causing a brand crisis for Elon Musk’s company.

From a technical perspective, the lithium-ion battery set ablaze and caused the vehicle to catch fire. According to official information, the cause of the problem was a large metal object that had fallen off a semi-truck and punctured a hole through the metal plate protecting the car’s base.

Up to that day, Tesla, as a high-end electric car manufacturer, had received excellent reviews in the US for helping to raise awareness about the eco-friendliness of electric vehicles.

What went wrong?

The accident was caught on video and published on YouTube, going viral in no time. Also, the whole incident was quickly described in articles of leading newspapers and online information services. 

The fire could be seen to engulf the front of the car. Americans started to question the safety of electric vehicles, which caused a brand crisis that resulted in a drop in Tesla’s stock value.

How they fixed it

The brand responded immediately. Tesla’s Service Manager, Justin Samson, contacted the Model S owner himself, and this was followed by contact from the VP of Sales & Service. During the conversation, they were transparent about the steps which the brand had undertaken:

  • apologized to the owner for the unfortunate experience,
  • explained the research they had conducted during the investigation,
  • explained why his vehicle caught fire.

Elon Musk also took a stand on his private social media account.

After the personal communication, the brand published the correspondence between the owner and Tesla’s staff on their website. Three days after the accident, Elon Musk wrote a blog post in which he:

  • explained what happened,
  • compared alternative scenarios of the situation describing cars powered with electric and gasoline engines,
  • showed that the Tesla vehicle performed very safely in such circumstances, precisely as it was designed to.

The company managed to turn the situation around. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects, Tesla stressed that no one got injured in this unusual accident thanks to the car’s safety. This improved Tesla’s brand reputation and showed electric cars as a safer option than traditional ones.

Crisis Communication example no. 2: Chipotle E Coli Disaster

What was the situation?

According to the CDC, 60 cases of E Coli poisoning associated with the Chipotle chain restaurant were reported in 14 different states in the US by the end of 2015. Even the most fervent brand loyalists were left doubting the authenticity and safety of the foods served there after this information was published.

The media picked up on the incident immediately and Chipotle faced a PR crisis that has impacted them for a long time since. It resulted in a massive drop in the stock price of the company and its sales (estimated to be in the tens of millions).

What went wrong

The company tried to mitigate the risks as fast as possible, so it started with public appearances. Later on, it launched a whole PR campaign intending to help the brand recover from the massive crisis. The campaign’s target audience was probably those who were buying food at Chipotle restaurants infrequently, as they were the most likely to stop purchasing altogether.

Although research shows that Chipotle responds to 83% of Facebook posts and 90% of Twitter mentions, which is a good score, the company didn’t make the grade this time. At first, the brand’s answers were defensive and advised users to contact a doctor if they felt unwell. A major misstep in the Chipotle strategy was that they withheld information for a few months about the severity of the problem.

How they fixed it

Finally, Chipotle developed further actions to solve the problem. It explained what measures had been taken to remedy the situation. The brand designed an infographic to post updates and accomplishments regarding the crisis. It also focused on gathering positive press articles and mentions about their company and reposted them on their website and other media channels (e.g. Twitter).

Moreover, Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder, apologized publicly to all those who had fallen ill and announced a comprehensive food-safety program that exceeded industry norms. Then, the brand published press releases about their improved cooking methods to prevent foodborne illnesses and guarantee better quality.

Thanks to social media monitoring, Chipotle could gradually dispel negative comments by reacting to them directly. Besides responding, the company included links to the positive news to highlight its efforts to improve the quality.

Crisis Communication example no. 3: Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad

What was the situation?

At the beginning of Q2 in 2017, PepsiCo launched a campaign called “Live for Now – Moments” that built off a previous campaign from 2012. The core message of the ad was “to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding,” but the audience interpreted the meaning differently.

Supermodel Kendall Jenner appeared in the advertisement as part of a staged protest, later approaching a police officer who was standing guard over the protestors with a can of Pepsi for him to take a sip. The company thought that this gesture would symbolize finding common ground, but it was wrong.

What went wrong?

Many viewers complained that the advertisement was insensitive and didn’t portray the intended message. In particular, the ad trivialized Black Lives Matter by portraying the rally as a block party that Kendall Jenner joined to have fun.

Neither Kendall Jenner nor Pepsi is perceived as representative of social activism. Therefore, the political messaging didn’t go along with Pepsi’s brand identity and how people perceive the drink manufacturer, which is related more to fun than fighting severe issues.

Despite its attempt to represent a protest movement, Pepsi failed to understand its target audience. The data used by the company to create a marketing persona probably was too generic. It resulted in building a message that didn’t meet the audience’s needs and expectations. The communication used in the ad was vague as well. The protest sign shown in the video said, “Join the conversation”, while the core message of the protestors was widely known and their aim wasn’t to negotiate.

How they fixed it

PepsiCo released a statement on all of its social media profiles in a flash. The communication was both empathetic and transparent. Besides simple words, the company promised to act. 

The brand responded to some private posts that had gained extensive reach, such as this Tweet posted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter:

Besides social media responses, Pepsi removed the advertisement in less than 24 hours.

As a result, Pepsi and Kendall Jenner avoided lasting backlash through effective crisis communication strategies and immediate reactions.

What can you learn from these brands?

In a nutshell, if your brand is facing a crisis, you should take care of a few things that can become game-changers.

  1. Create a crisis communication action plan based on a few possible scenarios. Write what to do step by step in order to react immediately and put out the fire before it spreads.
  2. Include both traditional and online marketing channels.
  3. Streamline your crisis communications.
  4. Enable real-time alerts and updates. You can set up such notifications with a media monitoring tool.

React immediately to messages so that you avoid a communication crisis

The crisis communications examples shown above prove that fast reactions are vital for nipping PR problems in the bud. Prevention is better than cure. If any issues occur, try to communicate with your audience in real-time. However, it would be perfect if you could respond to messages that have the potential to turn into a crisis before they go viral. 

To do this, you would have to monitor every online channel where users can post their reviews, opinions, and experiences. Luckily, you don’t have to do so manually. There are tools like Mediatoolkit that can do the work for you. In addition, social listening software systems crawl every part of the Internet and interpret the comments to notify you about any negative ones. Thanks to this, you can respond to them in no time.

If your brand faces a PR crisis and it’s too late to avoid the issue, always focus on sharing an official statement as quickly as possible. But try to take good care of your pre-crisis management – it’s always better to prevent crises from happening in the first place than to recover from them.


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