Navigating Crisis Management Communications in the 21st Century

Jerry Zhu profiles some well-known crises, highlighting how sticking to the fundamentals and seeking expert advice can make it an easier road to navigate.

 

The most important element in a crisis management toolkit is a solid crisis communication strategy. Due to the speed of digital communications and the multiplicity of touchpoints, the components of a crisis communication strategy are a lot more complex in today’s digital age. However, the fundamental principles of crisis communications remain essential.

The basics of crisis communications management

When a crisis strikes, an effective communications strategy means approaching the issue head-on, rather than deflecting or avoiding engagement. For an organization or individual where mistakes lead to a crisis, the best way forward is to acknowledge the errors, apologize and offer compensation if the situation calls for it. On the flipside, the injured party or victim of a crisis issue should clarify and communicate facts to gain public support and sympathy.

Nowadays, crisis issues are not always black and white. Often, even seasoned communicators struggle to establish the perpetrator/victim roles in a specific crisis incident. Organizations and executives on the “victim” side of a crisis issue may also not be entirely innocent, especially when reviewing the impact of their previous communications and digital footprint.


 

Crisis Profile 1: The specious victim 

In some crisis scenarios, the perceived victim is a brand or individual that appears to be on the receiving end of an externally instigated crisis whose victimhood does not stand up to scrutiny.

Earlier this year, online commentators aggressively vilified Li Auto’s newest product, the Mega MPV, as only good for carrying coffins. This insult derived from the shape of the Mega MPV, which was widely mocked online for its resemblance to a coffin or hearse.

Others saw Li Auto as the target of an online smear campaign. Li Auto’s founder Li Xiang has a track record of publicly belittling the brand’s competitors. For example, when the Zeekr 009 launched, Li Xiang publicly claimed the MPV’s backseat space was exaggerated in advertisements, which led to disputes between the two companies.


 

“In the communications world, we advise brands to focus on promoting their own products and avoid critiquing the competitor. Brands and executives who decide to pursue this method will face consequences.”

In the communications world, we advise brands to focus on promoting their own products and avoid critiquing the competitor. Brands and executives who decide to pursue this method will face consequences. If Li Auto and its founder approached this differently, Li Auto’s Mega MPV probably would not be on the receiving end of the present “coffin” controversy.

After an initial response threatening legal action, Li Xiang recognized the problem in time. In a leaked internal employee communication, he highlighted Li Auto’s sales focus rushed the products to market. Culturally speaking, this is equivalent to a gentle apology or a partial acceptance of responsibility for the Mega MPV’s launch crisis.

Aside from aligning on crisis communications principles, this approach was an honest response that reflected an understanding of the brand’s role in crisis – this helped save it from fallout from the “coffin” insults. In contrast, other brands previously cast in the role of the “specious victim” responded less effectively – they assign the blame to competitors and/or emotionally reacted to criticisms.

Crisis Profile 2: The authors of their own misfortune 

In other crisis situations, there are victims who unintentionally amplify crises and invite greater controversies.

For example, in the 2022’s soy sauce controversy, a blogger accused successful condiment manufacturer Haday of double standards for selling products containing artificial additives in China, while exporting products made with all-natural ingredients.

China’s national regulatory standards permit soy sauces to be sold with a certain level of additives. As such, if Haday sold products with additives only in China and exported all the ones without additives, then Haday would rightfully be the villain of this controversy. However, one can buy the whole range of Haday products in Chinese supermarkets – with and without additives at different price points.

“In other crisis situations, there are victims who unintentionally amplify crises and invite greater controversies.”

The blogger who raised the issue was targeting local regulatory standards and not the Haday brand. Haday had the opportunity to turn the narrative and proactively communicate its brand values and product qualities, but it failed to do so. Haday first attempted to question and blame the blogger’s motives for highlighting the issue of additives in its products.

Subsequently, the brand connected the issue to a national-level, which further complicated the public narrative. Consumers who didn’t receive the clarity they needed walked away and bought products from other brands.

Haday could’ve taken more constructive and appropriate actions. For instance, it could have sought endorsements on its processes and product quality from relevant government agencies and nutrition experts. There was also a missed opportunity to engage with the media and influencers, such as by inviting them to visit the Haday production line to personally view and verify the quality of production.

Crisis profile 3: Victims that bear partial responsibility  

Back in 2023, a viral video showed a Tsingtao beer supplier’s worker urinating into a truck that carries grain to its factory. Tsingtao took partial responsibility for the crisis – the brand did not intend to contaminate its own beer but agreed to share responsibility for the incident due to its inability to safely manage its suppliers and supply chain.

Tsingtao Beer’s actions provided a good example to add to the 21st century crisis management textbook. The brand quickly notified the police, sealed the raw materials and destroyed the entire batch of beer. Tsingtao also communicated the measures it took to validate all suppliers and improve the supply chain procedure to prevent any recurrences.

“The best solution is to acknowledge the crisis and take the appropriate steps to show accountability and rectify the wrongs.”

There’s still some discomfort about buying Tsingtao in the short term, but the brand has taken responsibility and properly responded to the incident.

To summarize, these examples demonstrate the timeliness of crisis communications principles. The best solution is to acknowledge the crisis and take the appropriate steps to show accountability and rectify the wrongs.

In a crisis, brands and businesses counseled by experienced communicators are more likely to demonstrate good judgment and respond appropriately. Before a crisis arises, ensure your business has advisors on hand who can assess your reputation risks and develop your brand’s crisis management playbook.

Allison has global expertise in building and safeguarding brand reputations. Contact us to discuss how we can support your business.

Subscribe to our newsletter

and Get more brand in your diet

 

Read More

Creative Work

subscribe & get more brand in your diet

newsletter

get more brand in your diet

We never share your info,
we only share ours