Fighting fire with fire: Secrets of Crisis Management

Whoever said ‘No publicity is bad publicity’ clearly needs to leave the house more often. It’s amazing how overnight a marketing stunt can go from being ‘Insanely brilliant’ to just ‘Insane’.

In 2007 a radio station in California came up with the bright idea of making 20 fans compete in the studio to see who could drink the most water, to win a Nintendo Wii video game system. Everyone was joking and laughing, the audience was loving it, and it seemed like brilliant marketing… until one of the contestants — a mother of three who drank 7.5 liters and won Second Place — suddenly died of water intoxication…

It’s all fun and games until you have to explain to your client why you need an extra $16 million budget for the pending lawsuit (and funeral flowers).

A company only discovers its true weaknesses (and strengths) in a crisis. Ever since the ‘Social Media Spring’, freedom of expression means any ‘keyboard warrior’ with an opinion and a spare afternoon can bring your brand to its knees, with the mouse as his trigger.

Here’s the dilemma: should you A) respond to every little complaint from your online fans, knowing this could draw even more attention and provide more oxygen for the flames? Or B) wait and see if the problem quietly goes away like smoke in the wind?

British Airways chose Option B. Eight hours later, @HVSVN (the unsatisfied customer) had actually spent money on Twitter ads for his ‘promoted complaint’ to be heard! The complaint caught fire, and British Airways’ reputation suffered fifth-degree burns.

Here a smart competitor would have turned their rival’s lemons into their own brand’s lemonade, by reaching out to unhappy customers.

In another catastrophe of sky-high proportions, Royal Jordanian Airlines left their social media pages in the hands of interns, and a response to a customer was sent from another brand’s account…

However, just because the ‘customer is always right’ doesn’t mean you should accept all blame if you genuinely believe your brand did nothing wrong. Calmly set the record straight. Don’t get too defensive, fighting fire with fire (and don’t start a bigger fire elsewhere to distract attention).

Others throw money at the problem by offering refunds and freebies. But that’s not a long term solution. The most successful crisis managers are those who convert unhappy customers into brand ambassadors.

The sad reality is that negative headlines will always attract more attention than positive news. So we should applaud brands that quickly turn a disaster into a success: when Southwest Airlines had an emergency landing, it quickly and proactively used its social media pages before any aggrieved passengers could. The airline received a flood of thanks from fans, and actually increased its customers’ loyalty thanks to the crisis.

In general, the 5 basic rules for crisis management are:


– Ensure that all the contact spokespeople’s contact details are updated and working.
– Conduct surprise “fire drill” scenarios for training and testing purposes.


– Be proactive by being the first to share a clear, non-defensive statement about the incident before the media does. The longer you wait, the more you feed the conspiracy theories.
– Continue to regularly provide updates to your audience (say, every 30 minutes depending on the severity of the crisis). Don’t focus on what went wrong, just focus on what you’re doing now to fix it.


– Give a statement that offers crisis closure with clear steps that have been taken to avoid a similar situation.

If you think you don’t need crisis management because your project seems too small or harmless, remember the Australian radio presenters who played a prank on a nurse in Britain — pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles to get information on the then-pregnant Princess Kate. The nurse tragically took her own life.

Remember: the best rule in crisis management is to try to avoid causing a crisis in the first place.