How One Crisis Made Others (Almost) Disappear

“Crisis communications”: in many companies and organizations, these two words mentioned in a management or board meeting are akin to someone bringing up “special measures” in a country’s Security Council. The everyday household equivalent would be: “dial 911”. Something bad has happened and it needs addressing before its spreads like wildfire and causes more damage. In most cases, the good name and image of the company are at stake and action is required fast: call the crisis comms people, apply special measures, dial 911.

In today’s corporate world, there are, of course, various kinds of crises. There are those crises which happen unexpectedly, in an unforeseen, uncontrolled manner, almost for no obvious reason.

“Nobody saw it coming; an unfortunate concurrence of unusual circumstances.”

Then there are those crises which happen because something or someone escaped attention.

“We maybe took too many risks. We should’ve known better.”

And then there are those which happen because quite a few people in the company or organization have quietly and secretly been dreaming up some elaborate scheme – usually for some kind of profit, though mostly of the monetary kind – and which got bigger and bigger until it blew up in their faces. Usually because someone, inadvertedly or not, spilled the beans. “Damn, we’re busted. Now what?”

The first kind of crisis is, professionally as well morally, an easy one to communicate about. You’ll find that usually these crises are communicated about openly and in great detail, and quite fast, too. For the benefit of TV and web viewers, the crisis is explained by the company’s PR person. It was an accident, reasons and causes are looked into, and remedies will be announced as soon as possible. The company apologizes profoundly and will make up for any inconveniences caused. In an exceptional case, a person considered possibly responsible will be demoted or moved to another department. Temporarily. The company’s good name and image are saved, its stock value has barely seen any repercussions, customer confidence hasn’t suffered at all. Crisis solved.

The second kind of crisis is initially tackled like the first one, though details will inevitably be fewer and farther between. Some details may never surface. For the benefit of TV and web viewers, a small battery of talking heads is facing the cameras. The PR persons’ job is now to prep and advice the talking heads, and introduce them to the world at large. A few will have acronyms for titles, starting with ‘C’ and ending with ‘O’; the middle initial depending on the scale and specifics of the crisis. A few heads of department will also attend to help explain technicalities of the crisis. It is common knowledge to all on both sides of the cameras that inevitably one of the latter at some point soon will have to vacate his or her office for being considered accountable for the crisis. Not that he or she was per se, but that’s what the general public – and the shareholders – expect in an avoidable crisis. Like the soccer coach being sacked because his team doesn’t perform on the pitch. Which makes one wonder why a bunch of young guys are paid tens of millions of Euros if they can’t even do their job properly unless some older guy in a colourful anorak on the sidelines shouts something incomprehensible while making gestures as if suffering a massive stroke. But back to our crisis: after a period of time considered decent and acceptable, new measures and protocols are introduced, the new head of department maybe even introduced. Crisis solved.

Then there’s that third kind, the kind every company dreads, not least the people in the communications department for they, almost by definition, have been given the mushroom treatment on this one: kept in the dark and fed a lot of s**t. Need-to-know basis only, and the comms guys don’t need to know. They might talk, you see. It’s what happened to the Volkswagen company recently, and by proxy, the entire VW Group. What started as “oops, we may have made a mistake” when a US college announced they had discovered Volkswagen’s engine figures on emission gases didn’t meet the facts by a country mile, turned into a multi-billion dollar global soap opera in a matter of weeks. Almost before the various importers around the globe could check whether the cars they had sold through their national dealer networks were also affected, the Wolfsburg HQ pleaded guilty as charged and announced it had set aside billions of Euros to pay for damages, rebuilds and repairs, while the CEO’s middle ‘E’ was changed from ‘Executive’ to ‘Exit’. Not that he was emotionally affected too much, at age 67 and with a compensation estimated at 60 million Euros by the WSJ.

Needless to say, the company hit its worst communications exercise ever, which is no mean feat, considering Volkswagen’s roots go back to the dark days of Nazi-Germany, when the Austrian madman who ruled the country, and soon the continent, decreed that the master race should drive a 1000-Reichs Mark ‘People’s Car’; a past of which the shadow still looms over the company. For all involved in communications it would be interesting to see how the company would spin this one, especially as multi-billion dollar lawsuits and legal investigations were announced in the four corners of the world.

But then, equally unexpected, yet equally meticulously planned and executed, a crisis of a far greater magnitude happened. Paris. Friday, November13th.

‘Dieselgate’, which had been front page news all over the world for weeks and weeks, and which had grown from an ordinary thunderstorm to a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, was effectively and immediately reduced to nothing more than a sidebar on the economic pages courtesy of the atrocities committed in Paris.

The very next day, Saturday, November 14th, also in France, the national railway company, SNCF, suffered its worst-ever accident on its famous high-speed network, when a TGV train derailed, killing eleven people; the first lives lost on a TGV since it first ran in 1981. Excessive speed while testing the new Paris-Strasbourg track was allegedly the cause. Human error was deemed the cause.

A week earlier, this accident would have made headlines all over Europe and would have had the crisis comms people working overtime. Now though, in light of what happened some twelve hours earlier in the French capital, the news barely made the European newspapers and certainly never the front pages. The train crash got instantly snowed under by the Paris massacres, and with it the attention of editors, opinion makers, critics and Op-Ed writers. All parties involved will be spared the public scrutiny, which in today’s social and digital media landscape usually translates as: vilified without retort. Not that those who lost a loved one aboard the TGV are grieving any less than those who did in Le Bataclan, but that, alas, is the reality.

It’s quite unlikely Dieselgate will ever be regular front page news again, since in the end it will be just about Volkswagen paying fines and compensations to governments and car owners alike. An extra rebate, a big cashback or a 0% APR on the next model year and sale volumes will soon be like before, and the company’s financial health on the mend. Quietly but certainly, away from the spot lights and media scrutiny and with the comms people concentrating again on buffing up the company’s image and good name. The eventual outcome of the legal investigations, most likely quite a few years from now, will maybe have them worried again, but by then Joe Public will probably have forgotten what it was all about anyway. Crisis solved.