By Steve Campbell
First published in BCTIA’s The Monitor
The lessons to be learned from the Rogers Cablevision’s negative billing nightmare and Intel’s chip fiasco is that they can occur to almost any business, large or small. The one difference between the problems Rogers and Intel experienced and the many small crises that affect most IT companies – or any business – on a regular basis is that the major news media picked up the stories and leveraged the damaging effects to both companies.
Whether the media covered the story or not, both companies still had a crisis on their hands. A customer problem is always important because how it is resolved magnifies a company’s reputation in the marketplace and reveals much about the business’s true commitment to service and quality.
Reviewing the cases of these corporate giants is valuable in that it assists all companies large and small to learn more about managing the various problems (product problems, poor service, delayed deliveries, poor quarterly results, etc.) that afflict all businesses on a continual basis.
Here are some general tips to keep in mind when you sense a crisis is brewing:
Determine the facts. Often you first become aware of the impending crisis through the rumour mill. Developing an appropriate strategy first requires gathering the facts surrounding the case. Rogers was understaffed during the peak customer complaint period at Christmas and their phone lines were jammed. As a result, management underestimated the extent of customer backlash.
Divide the crisis into problems (which can be solved by quick action by the company) and issues (ongoing situations that require action over a longer time frame). Intel had a problem: the quick solution was replacing a defective chip. Unfortunately, slow reaction time on the part of the company ballooned the problem into an issue: customers began to question Intel’s commitment to quality and customer service.
Work from the customer’s perception, not yours. Intel believed that one error every 27,000 years would not be a concern for its customers. But IBM’s belief was that it did matter. Intel’s refusal to deal on its customer’s ground forced the computer giant to turn to the public and media.
Set up a crisis management team (or coordinator) and give them the authority to deal with the problem. By its very nature a crisis is unexpected; therefore, someone must be assigned to handle it. If warranted, make the crisis the team’s sole priority. Disseminate information about the team (contact phone numbers, etc.) to everyone in the company and ask them to relay all information (facts and perceptions) to the crisis manager. Divide the team’s assignments into immediate problems and issues that require long-term solutions. Above all, be well organized in approaching the crisis; it’s important to present a professional, responsive image to the public.
If the crisis becomes public and the media become involved, set up a media relations team. Monitor media coverage closely. Media coverage greatly accelerates public awareness by informing tens of thousands of potential customers all at once, and day after day. The perception newspaper writers and television reporters have about how you respond to the crisis are crucial. Right or wrong, they, like the public, often judge you on how you respond to their calls and concerns. Part of this is due to a difficulty understanding technical issues in the IT industry.
Correct all factual errors promptly and respond to customer letters and phone calls as soon as possible. Every phone call and query should be answered. If a solution is not immediately available, promise action or more communication by a specific date. Even if you can’t solve the problem right away, provide as much information as is available. This will reassure the complainant you are at least interested in his or her concerns. In Rogers’ case, customer queries and concerns were blocked due to overloaded phone lines and understaffing; this led to frustration, the feeling the company was inaccessible and a search for other avenues of communication. One such avenue, inevitably, was the media.
Once the crisis reaches the newspapers and television, act quickly. It is difficult to respond publicly to a new development without adequate information. Yet, speed is critical. Rather than wait for complete information, it is better to meet with the media, address questions as best you can and tell them you will be back when you have further information. Newspapers have deadlines; television stations must broadcast their stories at 6 p.m. Failure to put in your company’s point of view within the media’s time frame means the day’s story will be incomplete and likely one-sided – the other side’s.
Over the long run, the most valuable recommendation is this:Don’t let everyday unsolved problems accumulate into major public relations issues and crises. Develop a proactive communications plan for speaking and, more importantly, for listening actively to your key markets. Ensure your crisis management strategy and communications plan is kept up to date.
Mandate all levels of the company to maintain contact with the customer base. Conduct customer surveys on a continuous basis and listen carefully to what they are telling you. If each of Rogers’ senior managers had spent just a few weeks within the last five years on the customer frontlines, it is unlikely the company would have been as poorly prepared for this past winter’s (1994-95) crisis as it appeared.
Finally, the reason companies are often caught short when these types of problems occur is that during the course of conducting regular business, company management usually has more “important” things to worry about than effective communications. Items like raising capital, increasing sales, and working in product development typically top the list of most business agendas. Yet, when you think carefully about it, the success of every area of the company – sales promotion, investor relations, product development, customer relations, media relations and marketing – is heavily based on clear and concise communications. Don’t wait for a crisis: whether large or small, make sure your company has an effective communications plan of action and the commitment to implement it. You can bet it’s at the top of Ted Rogers’ agenda.
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About the author:
Steve Campbell, APR, is president of Campbell & Company Strategies Inc., a communications and public relations firm based in Vancouver that helps its advanced technology and knowledge industry clients obtain national and international media coverage for their products and services. He is professionally accredited as a PR professional by the Canadian Public Relations Society. Steve can be contacted at (604) 888-5267.