Studying crisis communication theory has led me to examine a myriad of fascinating cases. The primary ethic that seems to continually resurface in all successful cases is transparency.
Bruce Hennes of Hennes Paynter Communications in Cleveland, Ohio, a leading crisis communications firm, told me the core values of his practice are “tell the truth, tell it all, tell it first.” While seemingly obvious, lack of transparency is often the spark that causes a small incident to erupt in the flames of a full-fledged crisis.
You mustn’t lie, young man.
Often the best advice we receive in our lives comes from our guardians. Most are told from the time they are children that it is wrong to lie. However, in the throes of a crisis, basic principles such as “don’t lie” are easy to temporarily grant ourselves amnesty from when we just want a problem to go away.
But transparency is not just about avoiding lies of commission. Rather, it is often the lies of omission that shred organizational reputations during a crisis.
This can put public relations counsel in a sticky situation with the C-suite during a crisis. It is natural management gut reaction to bury the corporate head in the sand. You as the PR practitioner must serve as the advocate for long-term organizational reputation.
Can you say too much?
Transparency is a delicate balance. It is easy, too, for practitioners to go overboard with information speculation during a crisis in the interest of providing the public with information–never speculate. An important facet of transparency is telling what you know.
In order to tell what you know, you must make sure you actually know what you’re telling. The media, both mainstream and social, will throw steaming piles of…criticism at your organization if you speculate and turn out to be wrong. There is no shame in honestly admitting you don’t have the proper information to answer a reporter’s question.
However, if you say you need time to answer a question accurately, you need to take the time to find the information quickly and be the first to provide it. Don’t let a media outlet scoop you on delivering key crisis information to your publics. That is the surest way to lose the trust of your publics. Transparency wins you no points if the media beats you to the truth.
The beef with the beef
Transparency is often the easiest way to turn an incited incident into a win for an organization. Take, for instance, the crisis Taco Bell dealt with in 2011. When the fast-food giant was hit with lawsuits claiming its ground beef was only 35 percent real beef, the company didn’t quietly wait for the media firestorm to go away.
Instead, Taco Bell played offense and employed transparency by publishing its proprietary seasoned beef recipe. Taco Bell told the truth, told it all and told it first. Taco Bell President Greg Creed posted during which he said:
“I want you to know the truth about our food…Our seasoned beef recipe contains 88 percent quality, USDA-inspected beef. So, what’s the other 12 percent? It’s our secret. And I’m going to give it to you.”
You can watch the full video at the bottom of this post. Some key statements Creed made helped to make his message successful. Primarily, he strongly emphasized throughout his video the need for truth (transparency) and loyalty to customers. Further, he made it clear that Taco Bell’s seasoned beef recipe is a trade secret. Yet, in the interest of transparency, he revealed the ingredients.
Taco Bell also stayed on-message across its media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, using a mixture of facts and candor to address consumer concerns, as is indicated in this article from Ad Age. Transparency, arguably, extinguished the “tacogate” crisis.
What was your take on Creed’s message? Do you have another great example of corporate transparency? Let me know in the comment section.