Kill the Beast: A Corporate Responsibility Department’s Reality During a Crisis

At any given time, there are multiple corporate crises happening around the world. In the age of social media, these crises “go viral” more quickly than ever before. This naturally creates a villain in the space where a corporation once was. Read the comments on any crisis response message and you can suddenly transport yourself to the scene in Beauty and the Beast where the mob of villagers storms the Beast’s castle. “Light your torch, mount your horse. Screw your courage to the sticking place. […] It’s time to take some action, boys. It’s time to follow me.” So if stakeholders and social media responses are Gaston and his people, is the corporation really a beast? And are the people who work in that castle responsible?

Having led a corporate responsibility function, I feel a phenomenal sense of empathy for the people inside that castle during these crises. In an effort to share that sense of empathy with those who might rather don pitchforks and torches, let’s talk about what is really happening inside a corporate responsibility (CR) department during a crisis. What are corporate responsibility leaders doing or feeling while the barbarians are at our gate?

  • We feel immediate shame and regret. Every day, corporate responsibility leaders get up in the morning and do the absolute best we can to steer the big ships that are our companies in the right direction. We are the “corporate idealists” as Christine Bader says. When a crisis happens in our companies, we naturally beat ourselves up. We ask ourselves what we missed, what we could have done better, what we should have seen coming, and how we could have prevented it. When you’re furious with a company for a public crisis, remember, no one is more angry than the person who feels their whole job is working to ensure things like this don’t happen.
  • We are trying to stop the spin cycle. Think about a toddler when they get caught stealing candy from the cupboard. They might be visibly covered in chocolate, but their first reaction is “I didn’t do it.” This is a natural human reaction when someone points a finger, and often it’s the natural reaction of corporate leadership teams. I’m not saying all corporate leaders are liars or cover-up artists, but their inclination will likely be to downplay and avoid the situation. CR leaders have heard it all: “Let’s just keep quiet and wait until the bad press dies down,” or “This isn’t really our fault, it’s so and so’s fault,” or worst of all, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” (PS – Yes, there is.) CR leaders are doing everything we can to stop this “spin,” and get to the root of the issues at hand, speak clearly and honestly in a way that preserves integrity – for us and for the company.
  • We know you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some of the hardest decisions we’re involved in following a crisis are about who says what and when. But in many cases, there’s no “right” answer. Consider these two examples: During United’s 2017 passenger removal crisis, CEO Oscar Munoz was vilified in the press for speaking too early with what many perceived as the wrong message. Conversely, during a 2016 messaging crisis where neo-Nazi groups claimed a love of New Balance, the company responded swiftly but was criticized for using a blanket press statement rather than a strong rebuke from the CEO. When you work in public relations or corporate responsibility and a crisis hits, you know whatever you do will be wrong in someone’s eyes. That knowledge can lead to another side effect…
  • Analysis paralysis is pervasive. Corporate responsibility leaders are naturally great analysts. We are trained to understand the expectations of stakeholders, balance those with the value drivers in a company, and think about the long-term implications of our decisions. This can lead to fear in decision making on a normal day. In a crisis, this process is exacerbated. In addition, the decision tree gets taller in a crisis. For every word the company says, approvals likely need to come from public relations, government relations, legal, the C-suite, and even the Board of Directors. That process takes time and can put everyone in that tree in analysis paralysis.

At the end of the day, this list could go on and on. Because the truth is, in a crisis, we are balancing 1,000 spinning plates while still trying to do the best we can for the good of our people, our business, our stakeholders, our shareholders, and y’know (not to mention) the planet. It is by no means an easy process.

But for those reading this article, both CR leaders and those seeking to better understand them, here’s what you need to know about a crisis: There is a clear formula for crisis communications management. I’m going to attribute this to my Kellogg professor Tim Feddersen, but it’s repeated in countless books, podcasts, classes, etc.

In a crisis, do 3 things:

  1. Tell us what you know
  2. Tell us what you don’t know
  3. Tell us how you will find out what you don’t know and when you’ll communicate that information

It’s so easy to vilify a company in a crisis. I do it, too. But remember this: A company is made up of people. Some of those people are doing bad things, whether intentionally or unintentionally. But most of them are doing the absolute best they can every day. A lot of them feel as badly as you do about what is happening inside their four walls. They will make mistakes, they will get things wrong, but hopefully they will also fight like hell to make things right.

While we should absolutely hold the proverbial corporate feet to the fire when serious crises occur (seriously, write to your elected officials, call the company’s hotlines, make your voices heard, because they matter), we should also recognize there are individuals who are doing everything they can to repair the situation. One of my mentors always says, “no one ever gets rewarded the crisis that didn’t happen,” but we’re always ready with the pitchfork one does. Perhaps this bit of background will be helpful the next time we find ourselves singing “kill the beast” and storming the corporate castle.

Posted in: CSR