How to Develop a Crisis Response Plan That Isn’t Reactive

By Valeria Carrillo

Crisis

Crises are innately unpredictable, so when they happen, many organizations are not prepared to respond. As a result, companies rush to publish a statement instead of taking the time to develop a proactive approach. It’s not practical to have a plan in place for every emergency that could happen, but you can develop a crisis response plan that will help you remain true to your company’s values, and communicate authentically and effectively when crises strike. By proactively strategizing your response, you’ll end up saving time, money, and your company’s reputation in the long run. 

To start planning your response, use the CARE model — Changes, Audience, Resources, and Environment. 

Changes include informing the public, hastening the return to normal, restoring the company’s image and goodwill, etc. Acknowledge who your Audience is. It could be those directly affected, the broader community, investors, customers, employees, etc. Be aware of your Resources whether it’s money, the time you have, who has the most authority, or personal connections. Scope out the Environment. Get a feel for what the political and economic spheres are like, how competitive the field is, and gather information from media scans. 

Let’s take a look at the two crisis responses below to consider which steps to take, and which to avoid. 

In early August of 2008, there was a widespread outbreak of listeriosis linked to Maple Leaf Foods products. There were 57 total confirmed cases, resulting in 22 deaths.

When it was first reported that the bacteria might have been linked to Maple Leaf Foods, the company ordered distributors to stop stocking the shelves. They pulled the products linked to the bacteria and started to prepare for a much bigger recall. When it was confirmed that a slicer at a Toronto plant was responsible, they immediately recalled more than 200 products. This process took a matter of days and shortly after, CEO, Michael McCain, publicly claimed full responsibility for the outbreaks and deaths — which is rare because it left the company open to lawsuits. In his statement he said, “Tragically, our products have been linked to illness and loss of life. To those people who are ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I offer my deepest and sincerest sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for their pain.” 

Maple Leaf Foods’ messaging stayed consistent throughout the whole process, offering many apologies and accepting accountability. This showed a deep sentiment of empathy and remorse especially with the CEO being so open and transparent about it. 

Throughout the crisis, there were frequent press conferences (that were later available online) to keep everyone updated as well as fact sheets and FAQs. The company highlighted specific actions they were taking which included multiple sanitizations of their plants, multiple testings of tools/products, and a large investment to acquire the best food inspectors. In fact, they stated that the majority of their resources went to food safety. They positioned themselves as listeria experts, and even launched a listeria education and outreach program to not only inform the public about the effects of listeria, but to inform their competitors as well. 

Maple Leaf Foods wanted this crisis to be more than a crisis to get over — they wanted greater change. They eventually started to lobby for better food regulations to set a higher standard for everyone in the industry. 

Between press conferences, blogs, TV ads, and other efforts, Maple Leaf Foods spent around $30 million to “fix” this crisis. Many people in the industry assumed they were done for and competitors reacted quickly to try to fill that potential opening, but they regained most of the sales they lost during the crisis and they managed to maintain their share of the market. 

The great qualities of this response were the empathetic nature of the messaging, taking full responsibility, being completely honest and open — especially to media and consumers — and taking action to prevent this from being repeated in the industry as a whole. Some would say it was risky to take full responsibility and constantly reiterate the event instead of sweeping it under the rug, but consumers value information. Consumers want to make informed decisions and they were constantly given resources to find the latest information and not in the form of brand marketing. The public expected an apology for the victims and for putting consumers at risk, and not only did Maple Leaf Foods repeatedly express their sorrow, but they made the impactful affirmation that no matter what they do, nothing will resolve the pain of losing a loved one. 

Let’s move onto a crisis that caused a reactive response. 

On April 20, 2010, there was an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP. 11 lives were lost, many injured, and the environment was deeply damaged.

As thousands of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, spoke with fellow BP executives and was quoted saying, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” In one of his first statements after this he said, “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” A claim that was later proven to be very false which destroyed their credibility and trust with the public. 

One would imagine that after the backlash to that comment, the company would change its messaging and course of action. But no, he then went on to say inconsiderate things like, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” and in response to the backlash, “I’m a Brit, I can take it.” At this point, many people expressed their frustrations with his self-centered attitude especially the victims’ families and those directly affected by the spill. 

In early June 2010, BP aired a TV ad in which Hayward apologized for the accident and thanked everyone involved in fixing it — the same technique as Maple Leaf Foods — except it was too late to repair the relationship with the public. Hayward had already dug himself into a hole and his apology could not be taken seriously, especially since oil was still leaking when the ad aired. People were also frustrated with the vagueness of how they were going to “make this right.” BP spent $93 million on advertisements during this time, meanwhile the U.S. Government loaned BP $63 million for the cleanup and offered assistance to stop the leak. Some critics say BP allocated their resources to the wrong cause — worrying more about brand image than the actual damage in the area. They should have allocated resources to help local BP employees, wildlife, the environment, fishermen, small businesses that were suffering and the thousands of people that volunteered to clean up the mess. Part of this is influenced by company culture, meaning if a company doesn’t have a culture of accountability and vulnerability, it’ll be difficult to come up with an internal strategy that will change people’s negative perception. 

BP was also accused of hiding bad press by buying search engine ads for their company to appear at the top. BP denied it and said it was to push updated information in order to be easily accessible to the public. However, we’ve seen a better approach to this kind of thinking, i.e. fact sheets, frequent press conferences, blogs, etc. Buying ads secretly instead of pushing out a release with new information seems manipulative and disingenuous. If it’s important, get it out there and don’t wait on people to find it through an ad. There’s no need to buy ads if you’re openly communicating with reporters and the public to keep them informed. 

Some things that went wrong in this response were the lack of accountability, the failure to acknowledge the hurt and damage immediately after the event, and not being transparent about the actions of the company and what the future looks like. Tony Hayward could have denied being solely responsible without being rude and insensitive. Why did no one prevent him from saying more hurtful remarks after his first one? Was this a PR failure or a lack of moral compass on his part? The lack of information and the failure to make information easily accessible greatly affected their relationships with consumers, stakeholders and the government.

On September 19, 2010, the leak was finally contained, after 4 million barrels of oil spilled into the ocean. It’s known as one of the worst environmental disasters made by humankind and in fact, to this day, it continues to harm wildlife. 


Crisis communication isn’t just about saving your brand, it can potentially save lives and the environment. That’s not something to take lightly. Responding to a crisis is a battle between speed and strategy. If the strategy is in place, everything else will follow through. Making strategic choices is a time saving decision because there’s no need to keep circling back to fix mistakes. When the stakes are high the cost of error is large, so making rushed decisions is not a risk you want to take. If you need help strategizing your crisis response, we’re here to help.

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