Why is it important to learn about and from real-life crisis management plan examples?

Sometimes a crisis happens suddenly and through no fault of your own (remember the Chicago Tylenol murders?), and sometimes you’re very much responsible for the situation you’ve found yourself in (like Burger King’s poorly thought out Women’s Day Twitter thread).

Whatever the case may be, oftentimes what really matters and leaves a lasting impression is how you manage that crisis.

How you react in that situation, how fast and genuine your response is, plays a role in how the audience responds as well. The level of care, empathy, and respect you show will make or break your short-term (maybe even long-term) reputation.

Just think about Boeing. After a series of “unfortunate events”, PR Week reported on the findings of a reputation intelligence company, saying that “on a scale of -100 to 100, with 0 being neutral, Boeing’s average reputation score for January 2020 is -71”. Yikes.

You don’t want to be a part of the “yikes” statistics. Nobody wants that.

This is even supported by research conducted by Clutch. Findings show that long-term brand reputation depends on how and when a company responds to a PR crisis.

This is why it’s extremely important to be prepared and plan for a crisis situation. Having a crisis communication plan will reduce your response time and improve your approach to delivering a response.

Before we delve into these crisis management plan examples, keep in mind that learning from others also means incorporating the lessons learned into your crisis management plan. Not flailing about as a crisis hits and trying to figure out what is the best course of action.

So, let’s get into it. These crisis management plan examples will take you through real-life scenarios and teach you about what you should and shouldn’t do.

The best & worst crisis management plan examples

Chicago Tylenol Murders (1982)

This yet unsolved poisoning spree and subsequent PR crisis involving Tylenol and its parent company Johnson & Johnson happened back in 1982, but it’s still relevant today.

This was a high-stake, truly dangerous situation as it was hypothesized that the unknown killer bought Tylenol over the counter, opened the bottle and injected cyanide into the red capsules, resealed the bottles, and then put them back onto the shelves in the store.

crisis management plan example: tylenol bottles and boxes
Bottles and boxes of Tylenol products which were taken off the shelves. Credit: The Denver Post

As is only natural, once the connection between deaths and Tylenol was established, people were wary of the brand. To ensure people’s safety and avoid further public outrage and blame, Johnson & Johnson pulled all of the product from the shelves – a move that cost them millions of dollars.

Additionally, they urged the public to not take the Tylenol capsules and established a hotline for worried customers in order to address any concerns they may have.

Crisis management plan rating: 10/10

Outcome

Johnson & Johnson could have just as well kept the Tylenol on the shelves and released a couple of statements defending and shifting the entire blame on the killer. Instead, they took actionable steps:

  • Product recall
  • Released statement
  • Hotline

This was meant to show their customers they value their well-being above their profit margins. Of course, they were also thinking long-term about their reputation. While their sales did plummet for a period of time, they managed to recover fairly quickly and restore consumer trust and brand reputation. Not to mention that this resulted in FDA mandating tamper-resistant packaging for medicines, changing the way we take pills today.

Lessons

  • Recall your products if they threaten customer safety.
  • Practice transparency.
  • Take actionable steps that support your public statements and promises.
  • Show empathy.

That one time KFC FCKed up (2018)

What happens when Kentucky Fried Chicken runs out of chicken?

You make it to the list of Top Press Ads, apparently:

This more recent crisis management plan example relied heavily on social media. In 2018, the KFC’s UK chain ran into a bit of a logistical nightmare. There was a disruption in their supply channel, as DHL, their logistics partner, failed to deliver the chicken from the warehouse to restaurants.

Hence the chicken shortage crisis that forced KFC to close down their UK restaurants.

To manage the crisis, KFC took to social media to address the situation. “The chicken crossed the road, just not to our restaurants” headlined the tweet:

They went on to explain what caused the shortage and promised they’re working on it. That first tweet was followed with more “updates from the colonel” to keep their audience apprised of the situation.

They also created a hashtag #wheresmychicken and set up a website cleverly containing crossed-the-road in the URL. To round up their social media strategy, they kept up with a few Q&A-style posts on Twitter with the caption “There’s gossip in the hen house, here are the facts…”.

Crisis management plan rating: 9/10

Outcome

These supply chain disruptions are not as uncommon or quite as problematic as some might think. However, in KFC’s case, their chicken-dependent menu and single location warehouse played into this being a bigger problem that was quickly caught by the customers. KFC played it off great, using social media to its advantage. Not only were they in on the joke (because there is a joke to be made with KFC running out of chicken), but they kept going with it throughout the crisis.

Just as Johnson & Johnson did, KFC took actionable steps to keep people informed. And social media makes it so much easier nowadays. They didn’t leave it at one post/statement. Rather, they kept up with informative content to keep people updated and to answer some FAQs. What’s more, they put an ad in the newspaper with a clever rearrangement of letters in their name – just to further drive home that “our bad, we messed up”.

However, the customers’ confidence and trust in KFC were shaken for a while. People were even calling the police to complain about the situation, and some were even championing for KFC to be nationalized so this wouldn’t happen again. It went that far.

And that’s just on the front lines. There was no chicken so the KFC restaurants had to close down. But what about the background, the actual problem in the supply chain? What happens with the chicken that didn’t get delivered?

Samir Dani, professor of logistics and supply chain management, said for Wired: “The bigger question is from a sustainability and food waste perspective. KFC has 500 farmers in the network that deliver chickens, which is the beauty of the model because it lets them use fresh chicken. What’s happening to the farmers in this situation? What’s happening to the chickens that are in the system at the moment? How much of it is being wasted?”

KFC did address it, saying: “Our warehouse has four temperature-controlled zones. Like the crystal maze, but filled with chicken. On a serious note – because our chicken is fresh, inevitably some may go to waste. And we hate that. Donating to local charities is one option, and we’re looking at many others.”

As for how KFC handled this, Dani went on to say: “They are reacting to the situation as a crisis rather than saying that they had thought about this scenario and are going to go back to stability very quickly. So I think it’s shown that they were not resilient enough.”

It still stands that they handled the situation as gracefully as they could, relying on self-deprecating humor to bring some comic relief to the whole ordeal, as is on par with their brand. A healthy 9/10 for this crisis management plan example, for sure.

Lessons

  • Plan for contingencies and perform a premortem analysis. It helps to anticipate hypothetical crisis situations like this one (especially logistics-related) to better prepare for if it actually happens. We talk more about this in our blog Crisis Communications Plan In 8 Steps. (Psst, go to the paragraph: Identify common crisis scenarios, i.e. anticipate a crisis. You’re welcome.)
  • Own up to the mistake.
  • Keep your stakeholders informed.

Tyson & their COVID-19 betting pool crisis (2020)

As if the times weren’t trying enough at the start of the pandemic, some thought it was okay to bet on people’s lives to…entertain themselves, I guess.

At least Tyson Waterloo plant employees did.

The story is a tragic one and filled with lawsuits that come after more than a thousand employees were infected and six have died.

In early April 2020, the Black Hawk County emergency operation center started receiving complaints about the working conditions in the plant. There were reports of a lack of safety measures and protective gear, and of the employees testing positive for COVID.

The Black Hawk County Sheriff and health officials visited the plant and were shocked by what they saw. As New York Times reported back then:

“Workers, many of them immigrants, were crowded elbow to elbow as they broke down hog carcasses zipping by on a conveyor belt. The few who had face coverings wore a motley assortment of bandannas, painters’ masks or even sleep masks stretched around their mouths. Some had masks hanging around their necks.”

After seeing the conditions employees had to work in, the Sheriff and the local politicians lobbied Tyson and Governor to shut down the plant – but they refused.

Somewhere around that time, even more incriminating information came up. As NPR reported, according to a complaint made by the family of one of the employees that died, a plant manager organized a “cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. According to filed lawsuits:

  • Tyson moved workers from another Iowa facility to the Waterloo one without properly quarantining and testing employees,
  • supervisors apparently denied that there was a virus outbreak and told employees they had a responsibility to “keep working in order to ensure Americans don’t go hungry”,
  • offered $500 bonuses to employees who came to work for three months which motivated sick employees to show up at work.

Tyson said that they “worked with the information available to us at the time to help keep our team members safe”. However, Dr. Nafissa Cisee Egbuonye, the director of the Black Hawk County Health Department shared her concerns with them and said: “I think they had enough information to take necessary measures.”

Only a few weeks later, on April 22, did Tyson finally close down their facilities. (Only to reopen them 2 weeks later.)

Crisis management plan rating: 1/10

Outcome

Tyson’s reaction was the epitome of “too little, too late” and empty “we care about our employees” statements. As New York Times reported:

“Workers and advocates say Tyson’s actions, and recent federal safety guidelines, have come far too late. They point to lapses that Tyson made in the first three weeks of April, as the virus tore largely unimpeded through the Waterloo plant.”

Tyson fired seven top managers that the investigation discovered were responsible for organizing the betting pool. They also promised to create more ways for employees to communicate their concerns. A spokesman for Tyson, Gary Mickelson, told NPR:

“We’re saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families. Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers, and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at our facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19.”

However, as Mel Orchard, an attorney for the deceased employees’ families, said for Associated Press: “I’m grateful that they might be getting to the bottom of it, but it’s way too late for some people. I hope Eric Holder stays on this case and continues to investigate the real issue: How is it that more than one thousand employees at one plant got sick and many died?

Lessons

  • Show compassion and care for human life. Don’t treat your employees as if they’re dispensable.
  • Ensure your employees have a way of freely expressing their concerns without the fear of repercussions.
  • Address the issues immediately as they arise – don’t wait for the situation to get out of hand.
  • Own up to your “mistakes”, be transparent, and take action to prevent them from happening again.

Amazon’s…everything (2018-2021)

One in a long line of complaints and criticisms against Amazon started with a tweet from Amazon’s executive Dave Clark in March 2021. After he boasted about Amazon’s “progressive workplace”, Rep. Mark Pocan clapped back, calling out Amazon’s “union-busting” and the fact that employees have to “urinate in water bottles”, echoing reports from 2018:

Amazon responded with outright denial: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”

Except, people do believe these stories as there are many documented examples. Numerous reporters who cover Amazon’s labor practices responded to the tweet with evidence and accounts they received from the employees:

What’s more, Amazon knew about this happening and still denied it. As The Intercept reported:

“But Amazon workers with whom I spoke said that the practice was so widespread due to pressure to meet quotas that managers frequently referenced it during meetings and in formal policy documents and emails, which were provided to The Intercept. The practice, these documents show, was known to management, which identified it as a recurring infraction but did nothing to ease the pressure that caused it. In some cases, employees even defecated in bags.”

But this is not Amazon’s only offense. The Verge reported a little summary of some of their transgressions:

“Other evidence includes the high injury rates in Amazon warehouses (7.7 serious injuries per 100 employees); employees dying from COVID-19 after complaints the company wasn’t doing enough to mitigate risks from the virus; widespread union-busting; production targets that treat humans like robots; and gruesome anecdotes like the story of the Amazon worker who died from a heart attack and who, say colleagues, was left on the work floor for 20 minutes before receiving treatment.”

When it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak, a regional medical officer said for Amazon’s Ontario warehouse: “Our investigation determined a closure was required to break the chain of transmission. We provided our recommendation to Amazon. They did not answer.”

Crisis management plan rating: 1/10

Outcome

While the complaints continue to pile onto Amazon, their crisis management tactic seems to be to deny, act ignorant, and bust efforts to unionize. Simultaneously, they’re boasting about their above-average minimum wage and being the most desirable place to work (at least according to Bezos who said that 94% of employees say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work). Which is a hard side-eye considering employees “filed at least 37 complaints to the National Labor Relations Board alleging interference with workers’ right to organize”.

However, complete denial about their labor issues may have come to an end. Jeff Bezos himself has said:

“Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”

We’ll see if his promises to do better will stand the test of time.

Lessons

  • Be transparent about your shortcomings and work to overcome them.
  • Address the issues head-on.
  • Don’t undermine your employees in pursuit of your own agenda.

Conclusion

When a crisis management plan is good, it can be really good (and get you on a list of best ads). However, when it’s bad, your reputation and business can suffer some serious damage.

These things, especially if they’re touching on the well-being of employees, customers, or the planet, can have a lasting impact.

Customers are becoming more self-aware and are not as willing to be ignorant. You can lose customers if you don’t handle a crisis well. That’s why a brand’s actions matter. How they respond to a crisis matters.

If you take away one thing from this blog, it’s that transparency and actions that support your promises go a long way in helping you successfully manage a crisis

And, but this should go without saying, having a fully developed crisis management plan that’ll help you react quickly and effectively in a time of crisis.

If you want to check out even more crisis management plan examples and learn how to predict a crisis, check out our ebook PR Crisis Management: A Guide.


https://www.mediatoolkit.com/blog

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