The Renault Spy Scandal: When a Speedy, Decisive Action Hurts

Speed is a double-edged sword in crisis communication.  Organizations are told to respond fast.  The sooner the better it would seem.  But speed can produce errors and be based on incomplete and misleading information.  A quick reaction that is decisive projects the image of managers that are control of the bad situation.  If we go back to the 2011 Renault Spy Scandal we find a case were quick a decisive action hurt the company.


Dominique Gevrey, a security chief at Renault and former intelligence officer, brought forward evidence that three executives had sold secrets about Renault’s electric car strategy to unknow foreign agents.  In a quick and decisive move, Renault fired the three executives immediately though each proclaimed their innocence.  Of course many guilt claim tom be innocent but that was not the case here.  Two months later, Dominique Gevrey was arrested as he tried to board a plane leaving the country for Guinea in west Africa.  Other investigations found there were no secrets sold.  The story was a fabrication.  Gevrey was accused of fraud and was believed to have keep the over $200,000 given to a secret source who provided the information.  Renault apologized to fired employees and offered them their jobs back. Of course the apology was not embraced as the executives were suing over wrongful dismissal.


The scandal had gone from a little bad to very bad with Renault being called paranoid and dysfunctional in the media and calls going out to fire its current leadership that allowed such a situation to unfold. 


Questions to Consider


1.  How can managers balance the need for speed and action against correct decisions when allegations of wrongdoing are launched against other managers?


2.  Why would Renault act so quickly and not just wait for an investigation?  What are the pressures to act?


3.  What unique features of this case limit the conclusions we can draw from it?


Crisis Communication is Rocket Science: A Time Dilation View of Crisis and Reputation

In physics, there is a concept known as time dilation.  It is often used in the plots of science fiction stories but is a real concept derived from the work of Albert Einstein.  The basic principle is that time slows with speed.  The common example is to consider two identical clocks ticking.  One is on a speeding jet for two hours and the other is stationary on the ground.  When the clock in the jet lands, it will have ticked slightly less time.  The speed of the jet causes the one clock to experience a different rate of time flow than the stationary clock.  The example highlights how time is relative because it depends upon a point of reference.  Essentially, as an object moves faster, it experiences a slower time flow.  On a space craft, time flow can be slower near a gravitational mass because the gravitation field will cause the rocket to accelerate.  Science fiction stories like to note how time slows near black holes (a gravitational mass), for instance. 


What we commonly call rocket science is really the application of physics and engineering principles in space.  Physics informs us that a planet’s gravitational mass can be used to either slowdown or to accelerate an object moving through space.  This process is known as a gravitational assist maneuver or a gravitational slingshot.  The principles are used regularly for satellites (space crafts) sent to probe our solar system.  If an object approaches the planet and flies with the movement of planet, it can increase speed (slow the time flow).  If an object flies against the movement of the planet, its speed can decrease (quicken the time flow). 


But you are managing a crisis not writing a science fiction story or deploying a space craft so why talk of time dilation and gravitational slingshots?  I believe we can use the principles of time dilation and gravity assist maneuvers to understand how theory can inform the ways crisis communication affects the time variable in a crisis, what I will call the crisis clock.


Time is an underused variable in crisis communication.  Yes, there has always been the advice to respond fast to a crisis.  And stealing thunder informs us that if the organization is the first to release information about a crisis, the crisis inflicts less damage on an organization.  But these two applications are really timing (controlling when something is done) and so much about time itself.  When a crisis begins so too does a crisis clock.  The crisis clock runs during the lifespan of the crisis and denotes the time in which the crisis affects the organization and its stakeholders, typically in a negative fashion.  The effects of a crisis can linger well past when operations have returned to normal meaning the crisis time can still be running or can end before the return to normal operations.  The crisis clock stops when most stakeholders have forgotten about the crisis and return to normal interactions with the organizations.  Consider how automobile customers eventually forgot/no longer actively thought about the brake crisis allowing Toyota to return to its market position about a year after the crisis began.  As with issues, a crisis has an attention cycle that will run its course.  Solid organizations will survive the crisis and benefit from the passing of time and the end of the crisis attention cycle.  Essentially the crisis clock counts the time it takes for a crisis to move through the crisis attention cycle. 


Imagine an organization is a spacecraft moving through space.  A crisis is a mass in space that emits a gravitational field and radiation that can damage the space craft.  The crisis can vary in mass meaning some crisis exert little force and damage on an organization while others can exert a great deal.   The crisis attention cycle represents the time during which the organization experiences negative effects from the crisis mass—when the crisis clock runs. Ideally, the organization wants to pass through the crisis attention cycle as quickly as possible—time should move as fast as possible.  However, time dilation causes time to slow down when our organization is under the gravitational pull of the crisis mass.  Time passes more slowly as the organization speed up during the encounter with the crisis mass because actions are now time sensitive.


Crisis communication can be used to adjust the trajectory of the organization thereby influencing time dilation for the crisis clock—how long the organization experiences the crisis attention cycle.  We can draw a distinction between aggressive and passive crisis responses.  Aggressive crisis responses tend to be accommodative and quickly seek to address the concerns of the victims.  Passive crisis responses are less accommodative and seek to take as little action as possible.  Apologies and compensation are aggressive while denial, scapegoating, and excuses are passive.


An aggressive crisis response initially moves the organization closer to the crisis because managers are acknowledging the crisis.  Hence, the initial crisis communication can speed up the organization and slow the movement of crisis time while enhancing the negative effects of the crisis on the organization.  This may seem bad but is part of a larger process designed to change the crisis clock in a positive manager for those experiencing the crisis. The initial crisis response begins a gravity assist maneuver.  The question is what differentiates between a gravity assist maneuver that increases or decreases the organization’s speed.  Ineffective crisis communication will increase the speed of the organization from this encounter while effective crisis communication will decrease the speed of the organization.  The goal is to decrease speed because a decrease in speed permits the crisis clock to move faster. 


The critical question is how do we know what is effective and ineffective crisis communication?  Space craft rely on theories of physics to determine increases and decreased in speed from a gravity assist maneuver.  Managers can rely upon crisis communication theory to determine the outcomes from their gravity assist maneuvers.  In physics, speed is reduced by moving against the movement of the gravitational mass.  This is accomplished by moving in front of the gravitational mass.  Passing behind the gravitational mass will, on the other hand, increase speed.  To fly against the crisis mass, an organization must address stakeholder concerns and engage in other positive actions.  The crisis mass is negative, hence the need for positive actions.  Ineffective crisis responses contribute to the negative force (unfavorable reactions by stakeholders) and move with crisis mass.  For instance, denying a crisis when the organization has some responsibility, blaming others to avoid responsibility, or criticizing those trying to help with the crisis are all negative responses that will increase the speed of the organization thereby slowing the crisis clock and the crisis attention cycle thereby increasing the damage a crisis will inflict on an organization. 

Crisis Scanning for Food-borne Illnesses

The best way to manage a crisis is to prevent one from occurs.  Prevention means the crisis inflicts no harm on your stakeholders or your organization.  The Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain (lead by IBM Research and Mars) is trying to find ways to anticipate the threat of food-borne illnesses.  In the crisis world, food-borne illnesses are a type of product harm crisis and are sometimes called food safety crises.  Those in food safety talk about food-borne disease (FBD), a global public health problem impacting millions of people each year.


The Consortium describes its work this way:


In a novel large-scale experiment between IBM and Mars, Inc., researchers are harvesting and sequencing the DNA and RNA of simple food samples to determine where anomaly and selection occur when paired with common organisms or genes, toxins, and heavy metals. The index produced from this study will result in a “microbial baseline,” or a benchmark representing normal microbe communities, which food and health officials can use to understand what triggers contamination and the spread of disease.


By combining the database transportation, weather, and other contextual data, people will be able to predict when certain trigger events will create a food safety crisis/FBD.  Food producers will know when an outbreak is about to occur.  The given the amount of data used in the process, this can be called a big data solution for crisis scanning.


Anticipation of food safety crisis/FBD can save lives and prevent serious injuries.  Food-borne illness outbreak occurs when medical personnel confirm two or more people are linked to the same pathogen.  A systematic effort is them made to locate the source of the outbreak.  The effort includes questionnaires about food consumption to those who are ill and those who are not ill in an effort to locate the source.  About 60% of food-borne illness outbreaks are from food consumed at restaurants and other institutions (e.g., schools, prisons, nursing homes, etc). This can be a slow process.  Food sales data has been shown to provide a faster solution to locating the problem.  Still, the ability to prevent a food-borne illness or to identify it at its very inception will be a great benefit to public safety. 


Questions to Consider


1.  Why will crisis prevention never be 100%?


2.  How might those involved in the food industry integrate the work of the Consortium into their crisis planning efforts?


3.  What makes a food safety crisis unique from other product harm crises?


Takata: Supply Chain Complicates Crisis Risk and Communication

Supply chains are a fact of life for firms.  International firms tend to have long supply chains that reach to many locations around the planet.  Managers have always known the risks of supply chains with a focus on disruption to the supply chain as a key risk.  Losing access to a key resource or component can be disastrous.  Consider the story of Nokia, the Finnish telecommunications company.  A lighting strike in 2000 in New Mexico sparked a fire that seriously damaged the manufacturing facility of the supplier of the chip (Philips) used in Nokia and Ericsson phones. Nokia acted quickly to bridge the gap in chips.  Its rival Ericsson waited to take action.  The initial indication was this would be a minor disruption but two weeks later it was clear the disruption was major.  By the end, Philips took nine months to restore production.  By then, Nokia had captured the alternatives for get the chips leaving Ericsson with a chip shortage and an inability to manufacture its phones.  Dr. John Tantillo reported the decision cost Ericsson $400 million in annual earnings and a loss in market share while Nokia profits rose 42% that year and they increased market share.  In the end, Noki1 increased market share from 27 to 30% while Ericsson dropped from 12 to 9%.


Takata made and hope to continue making airbags.  Major automobile manufacturers have been using them as a supplier for years.  The problem is that for years, Takata airbags could be dangerous.  Some airbags are too explosive and create metal shrapnel.  People have been injured and killed by these airbags.  This week Takata filed for bankruptcy protect in the U.S. (where the defective airbags were manufactured) and Japan.  Takata has already agreed to pay $1 billion in penalties for its role in concealing the problem.  Once again, we have evidence of the damages created when a firm conceals a crisis rather than engaging in stealing thunder.  Takata has paid another billion dollars to people injured and the automobile manufacturers.  But there are further legal liabilities of around $9 billion. 


Honda, Nissan, and Toyota have all been paying the recall costs.  None of the firms believe they will recover the money for these recalls.  I own a Honda that was part of the recall.  Over a period of two years airbags on the driver and the passenger side were replaced with no cost to me.  Firms have recall insurance but that does not cover all the costs of a recall.  Honda, Nissan, and Toyota are all feeling the effects of crisis by a supplier in the supply chain.  Each has suffered some reputational damage as well from the crisis.  That is due in part to the manufacturers not helping to reveal the problem and concerns buyers have about faulty airbags.  Takata issued an apology and admitted employees knew of the defect since the early 2000s.  the initial apology is below.  But the automobile manufacturers must consider how they will respond to this crisis.  Supply chains can create various risks for crisis managers.


“I would like to sincerely apologize on behalf of Takata. The actions of certain Takata employees to undermine the integrity of the company’s testing data and reporting to customers were deeply inappropriate.”


Questions to Consider


1.  How viable is a scapegoat response for the automobile manufacturers in this case?  Why might it help or hurt?

2.  Why does the late apology and admission of guilt by Takata considered too little too late?


3.  What does the chip fire case reveal about the importance of crisis scanning and early action?


When the CEO becomes the Crisis Risk: Uber seeks an Ending

Uber’s crisis sage may be nearing an end.  It seems the ending maybe written as a tragedy as the founder who loves his company sacrifices himself by resigning as CEO.  At least that is how the story is appearing in the Uber board would like people to see it with this statement:

“’Travis has always put Uber first. This is a bold decision and a sign of his devotion and love for Uber. By stepping away, he’s taking the time to heal from his personal tragedy while giving the company room to fully embrace this new chapter in Uber’s history. We look forward to continuing to serve with him on the board.’”

Another way to frame the events is that a company cannot hope to fix its culture problems when the person who created and embodies the culture remains as the leader of the organization.  Here is the contrasting view from one news source:

“Mr Kalanick embodied his company’s prevailing attitude: success at all costs. It saw Uber dominate the ride-sharing world, his chutzpah enabling the company to attract investment so effectively that last year Uber alone raised more money than the entire UK start-up scene.”

Investors were the pressure behind his resignation and not just time away.  Investors were weighing the risks.  What is the risk of dumping the CEO legend verses the risk of his continuing to drag down the organization.  This is a great quotation about the existing risks and Uber as a crisis self-generator:

“What started out as a PR inconvenience has left the company without, to name just a few, a chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief technology officer and chief financial officer. Uber is in tatters, engulfed by its own aggression.”

Time is always a critical variable in a crisis.  Crisis time has been standing still for Uber, this may be part of the actions that unfreezes it.  At least for investors, CEO Travis Kalanick was more of a crisis risk than an organizational asset.

Questions to Consider

1.  How might Kalanick’s resignation help the crisis situation?  How might its create a new variant of a crisis?

2.  How can an organization prove to stakeholders that a culture is changing?

3.  What does this case demonstrate about the potential role of board members and investors during an organizational crisis?

4.  What actions could Uber have taken earlier to prevent the crisis/crises from extending over such a long period of time?

Milk with Dignity: Ben & Jerry’s faces a CSR Crisis Risk

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is frequently used as a means of bolstering an organization’s reputation.  Of course failed CSR efforts can come back to harm the organization in a boomerang effect.  Even when CSR is successful, it creates a unique crisis risk.  Once an organization publicly claims to be socially responsible, the organization becomes vulnerable to charges of social irresponsibility.  The Reputation Institute estimates that over 40% of an organization’s reputation is related to social responsibility.  Hence, once managers claim the organization is socially responsible and draw reputational benefits from that claim, the organization is vulnerable to challenges that claim the organization is acting socially irresponsible.  CSR is a form of crisis risk, not just a potential asset before or after a crisis.


Last week, activists and farmer workers marched to the primary Ben & Jerry’s facility in Montpelier, VT.  The action is an ongoing concern over whether or not Ben & Jerry’s is honoring its 2015 commitment to Milk with Dignity.  Here is how the campaign’s web site describes Milk with Dignity”


“The campaign builds a movement of farmworkers and allies to call on major food corporations to take responsibility for farmworker rights abuses in their supply chains. Farmworkers converted worker’s rights and housing violations into solutions in the creation of the Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct—defining the human rights essential to a dignified workplace and fair housing. Our members also noted that some dairy farms already had most of the Code of Conduct’s standards in place, demonstrating that it is both necessary and possible to raise the bar in the industry through this campaign.”



The activists and farmers feel that Ben & Jerry’s is acting irresponsibly by not really trying to honor their pledge in 2015.  Ben & Jerry’s is one of the few corporations built on the concept of CSR, therefore, charges of social irresponsibility can be serious reputational threat.  The magnitude of the reputational threat is dependent on the ability of the challengers to make other stakeholders aware of the concern and to convince other stakeholders Ben & Jerry’s is acting irresponsibly.  The march was just part of an effort designed create awareness of the dispute and to pressure Ben & Jerry’s to take action thereby eliminating the reputational threat.


Here is Ben & Jerry’s original statement on Milk with Dignity


“June 19, 2015

Ben & Jerry’s shares Migrant Justice’s belief that all farm labor must work under fair, just and dignified conditions.  Both parties acknowledge the challenging conditions for farmworkers and family dairy farms in Vermont.  

Ben & Jerry’s and Migrant Justice commit to work together to define and detail the rights and responsibilities of Ben & Jerry’s and Migrant Justice under the Milk with Dignity Program.

Ben & Jerry’s is proud of its longstanding relationship with the family farms within its Vermont supply chain. The member family farms of the St Albans Cooperative Creamery share the vision and values and work every day to deliver a dignified life for everyone working in the Vermont dairy industry. Our united vision is to ensure that everyone within Ben & Jerry’s Vermont dairy supply chain work under fair, just and dignified conditions.” 

The action is having some effect as Ben & Jerry’s did feel the need to address the situation in May of 2017 with this statement:

“Migrant Justice’s recent release of a timeline documenting past violations of unsafe conditions, wage theft, and inhumane housing for Vermont farmworkers are as shocking today as they were when they were first reported. Even a single incident is serious and unacceptable and must be treated as such. We followed up with various Vermont State officials and the St Albans Cooperative management to understand the context of each allegation and the resolution to each one. We know that at the state level and at the Cooperative we source from, all of the stakeholders are working to achieve safe and dignified conditions for dairy farmworkers. Ben & Jerry’s is deeply committed to the ensuring that all of those who work in our supply chain have safe and dignified working conditions, which is why, in 2015, we committed to implement the Milk with Dignity program on dairy farms that supply our company.

While Ben & Jerry’s has been working to building strong labor standards with our St. Albans Cooperative dairy supply chain for many years, our labor standards within our Caring Dairy program are not worker-driven social responsibility. We appreciate that Migrant Justice has brought forward the importance of a worker-driven program to protect farmworkers’ rights and working conditions. We understand the distinction that the labor standards within our corporate-led program, while robust and creating positive results, are not worker-driven. That’s why we’ve been at the table with Migrant Justice for the past two years working on the details of how to operationalize the Milk with Dignity program across our dairy supply chain. Our intention is that The Milk with Dignity program would replace the labor standards that were embedded in the Caring Dairy program.

We are as disappointed as Migrant Justice with the amount of time this process has taken. We’ve invested much staff time, energy, and effort, all in good faith, to reach an agreement with Migrant Justice. Contrary to the current public narrative, we never left the table in our discussions with Migrant Justice to resolve the Buyer’s Agreement. We remain at the table ready to find a constructive path to a successful conclusion. We are committed to becoming the first dairy company in the country to implement the Milk with Dignity program and remain dedicated to the pledge we made two years ago.

Make no mistake, we’re proud of the work we’ve done over the years in our dairy supply chain and we invite you to learn more about that work here.  But we also understand that there is still much work to be done. We hope that soon we can move from discussing to implementing the Milk with Dignity program across our dairy supply chain.”

Ben & Jerry’s do recognize that the activists have a valid point but disagree on the reasons for the lack of progress.  The challenge is not over and we can expect both sides to continue creating messages around the issue meaning this CSR reputation threat will continue for Ben & Jerry’s.

Questions to Consider

1.  Would other stakeholder view the activists’ concerns over milk legitimate?  Why or why not?

2.  How effective would you say the response by Ben Jerry’s is for protecting its reputation?  What led you to that evaluation?

3.  Why might managers forget to include CSR is their assessments of crisis risks?


Useful Reference:

Coombs, T., & Holladay, S. (2015). CSR as crisis risk: expanding how we conceptualize the relationship. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 20(2), 144-162.

At Least a Double Crisis: Uber the Crisis Self-Generator

A board member is at a high-level meeting about the changes an organization needs to make because of problems with harassment and discrimination.  Of course that is the time to make a sexist comment.  Welcome to the self-generating crisis that is Uber.  David Bonderman, now a former member of the board was part of the following exchange:


“There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” Huffington said.

In response, Bonderman said: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”

The statements were verified and made public by unhappy Uber employees who also reported the events to human resources.  It seems Uber desperately wants to make itself part of the crisis communication curriculum as an example of what not to do.  This is a great example of a double crisis, a situation where the crisis response makes the situation worse by creating another crisis.  For a thorough explanation of double crisis see Frandsen and Johansen’s 2017 book, Organizational Crisis Communication. (It is a very good book to read and to reference).


At least Bonderman and Uber saw the problem and he resigned with the following statement:


“Today at Uber’s all-hands meeting, I directed a comment to my colleague and friend Arianna Huffington that was careless, inappropriate, and inexcusable. The comment came across in a way that was the opposite of what I intended, but I understand the destructive effect it had, and I take full responsibility for that. Having worked with the company for the last few months on the Holder report, I recognize the importance of implementing the requirements of the report. Uber is examining the issues with its culture, and making significant changes and working to right what has been done wrong, which is extremely important for the future of the company. I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud. I need to hold myself to the same standards that we’re asking Uber to adopt. Therefore, I have decided to resign from Uber’s board of directors, effective tomorrow morning. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve on Uber’s board, and I look forward to seeing the company’s progress and future success.”


Bonderman gives an appropriate response because he takes responsibility for his actions, he recognizes why the statement was a problem and its negative effects, and resigns (corrective action).  But the damage was already done.  As Uber is announcing how it wants to change a problematic culture, the traditional and social media are reporting about the effects of a problematic culture—the comment and resignation.


I like to say that crisis communication should follow the principle of “do no harm.”  A double crisis is a sure sign you violated that principle.  Silence is a sub-optimal response but can be a better alternative than some choices.  During a crisis an organization is under increased scrutiny.  That demands managers be careful about what they say or do.  How can Uber be taken serious about a culture change when the problems with that culture keep re-emerging.  Media are already speculating on whether or not Uber can change its culture and beginning to document the negative effects of this current cluster of crises on hiring and customers.


Questions to Consider


  1. How can Uber management address the concerns about the ability to change the company’s culture—what is next for their reputation repair?
  2. Why would this comment become such a concern on social media?
  3. Why might Uber’s actions finally be affecting customers?  Think about how it can relate to outrage.
  4. Why are double crises so problematic?

The UPS Response is a Warm Light during a Dark Time

Unfortunately, workplace violence continues to be a crisis type for organizations.  The UPS shooting in San Francisco comes on the heels of a workplace shooting in Florida.  Current or former or former employees harming or killing current employees is a tragedy managers may have to face.  If you want to find an example of a proper (and effective) crisis response for a workplace violence crisis see the UPS response below:


US 06/14/17

Atlanta, GA

UPS Statement

UPS confirms there was a shooting incident involving six employees within the company’s facility in San Francisco earlier this morning.  Local law enforcement is conducting an investigation.  We cannot provide information as to the identity of persons involved at this time, pending the police investigation.  We understand that there are four deaths, although some individuals were transported to the hospital and we are unsure of their status at this time.

The company is saddened and deeply concerned about affected employees, family members and the community we share.   Our thoughts and prayers are with all those touched by this incident.  To assist our employees during this time, UPS has made professional counseling available.

The facility is an area package sorting hub and package delivery center.
UPS employs 350 at the facility.
The location is:
2222 17TH STREET
Cross street is San Bruno
Neighborhood is Potrero Hill


UPS used Twitter to help notify people and to send them to this message.  UPS provide a summary of the relevant details while respecting privacy.  The focus is on the victims including other employees and family members.  UPS is providing counseling for the employees along with an expression of sympathy (all part of adjusting information).  The message is simple (no confusing jargon) and to the point.  In a time of trouble, UPS management provided a helpful crisis response.

No Questions to Consider, just appreciate the good work that was done in a terrible situation.

The Often Long Road for Corrective Action

On Feb. 19, 2017, Susan Fowler, a former Uber employee, posted a blog about her experiences with harassment, discrimination, and retaliation at Uber.  Her post highlighted a rather deaf human resource department and a disinterested management team.  Here is a part of her post:

“Uber was a pretty good-sized company at that time, and I had pretty standard expectations of how they would handle situations like this. I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on – unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently. When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”

The blog posted kicked off yet another crisis Uber to go along with other, publicly documented accounts of bad behavior by leadership.  Former Attorney General Eric Holder was appointed to investigate and to report back to Uber’s board.  One June 5, 2017 the recommendations of the report were made public after the board has unanimously accepted all the recommendations.  Many of the changes were practice common in many organizations related to human resource practices and management accountability.  A central theme was a problem with Uber’s “hard charging” culture that seemed to be personified by its CEO Travis Kalanick.  It was announced he would be on indefinite leave following the report.  Uber had already fired/had many in leadership leave the organization as part of the need to change.  Now Uber has a blueprint for additional change.  Stakeholder interest (including traditional and social media) will continue to wane as Uber starts to implement the change but eventually there will be some check on these changes to see if the practices and culture are changing.  Stakeholder should and often do question an organization’s commitment to addressing the problems that created the crisis.

The case illustrates that corrective action can be a slow road.  Corrective action includes an organization explaining what it is doing to prevent a repeat of the crisis.  This prevention is part of adjusting information because it is a critical element of helping people cope psychologically with a crisis. We can call this corrective action prevention.  Do you want to re-purchase a food item that made you sick or work for a company that has had such a high-profile harassment case?  The answer is “no” unless you believe the company has changed its ways and working to prevent a repeat of the crisis.  Organizations often begin corrective action prevention with a promise.  But how good is that promise?  Did the organization conduct a thorough investigation?  Was the investigation independent or internal?  Did the organization take tangible action of the report recommendations?  The corrective action prevention can be a long-term process that serves to extend the crisis though often at a low level of interest.  However, the bigger the crisis, the greater the interest when the report is made.  BP followed a similar pattern in response to the Texas City tragedy.  The news media were very skeptical of BP’s initial identification of the problem.  What followed was an external investigation and report by James Baker.  Many stakeholders (including traditional media) will question an organization’s crisis response until the corrective action prevention is implemented, usually those closest to the crisis including victims.  There are times when an effective crisis response takes time because an organization must seek to understand what and who are responsible for the crisis and then take actions designed to reduce the likelihood of the crisis repeating (prevention /mitigation). 


Questions to Consider

1.  Why would Uber be so reluctant to have its CEO step away before the report?  How is this complicated by Kalanick having controlling interest in Uber?

2.  Why might the earlier removal of personnel been considered just a sign of good faith and not a complete corrective action prevention?

3.  At this point, who do you think is still interested in the crisis?

4.  How does the case indicate an organization cannot always gloss over concerns about responsibility for a crisis?

What does a Competitor’s Crisis mean for You?

The image above is from mediafirst, a firm that offers media training including a specialty in crisis communication.  I am not endorsing any products but they do make some interesting blog posts about crisis communication.  Is a competitor’s crisis an opportunity, and warning, or both?  The advice being offered is not to exploit a competitor’s crisis (opportunity) but to use it as a crisis preparation opportunity.  The competitor’s crisis is a warning that this can happen to you.  to handle that crisis.  That is very sound advice.  Organizations should regularly review their crisis preparation.  A competitor’s crisis is a good hook to review preparation and to even do some training related to that crisis.  The crisis could easily be converted into a tabletop exercise for the crisis team. Sometimes a threat is an opportunity.


We also should consider the larger implications of the crisis.  As the blog post notes, a crisis can cause an entire industry to come under scrutiny.  Crises can trigger government regulation and spillover to others in the industry.  A poorly handled crisis indicates a risk the government may need to manage through regulation.  Some of the early food regulation in the U.S. was a result of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  My earlier posts about the cantaloupe crisis is an example of spillover.  People were afraid of cantaloupe and did not limit the fear just to the small percentage of the product coming from the affected farm.  We see similar effects for a variety of food crises including apples (Alar) and spinach.  These food items are what is known as undifferentiated products.  The products are seen as very similar and consumers will easily substitute one for another.  This is very different from differentiated product that stand out from one another often featuring strong brands.  People did not worry about buying any car during the Toyota break crisis, just certain Toyotas.  A spillover is much more likely when a product is undifferentiated.  That means if you are in an industry where your products are undifferentiated, be prepared that a competitor’s crisis could become your crisis.  You will need to monitor the situation very carefully for spillover.  At the first signs of spillover, you will need to deploy your counter measures to prevent spillover damage to your organization.  Preventing spillover is challenging because of the nature of undifferentiated products but crisis communication should seek to contain and limit the damage a crisis creates for the organization and its stakeholders.


Question to Consider


  1. What are the risks of trying to use a competitor’s crisis to create a competitive advantage? The possible benefits?
  2. How would you know if crisis spillover is occurring? What would some of the warning signs be?
  3. How can social media be used to monitor and to respond to spillover?