Lessons in Proactive Communication During Crises

Responding quickly and thoughtfully in the face of crisis is essential to brand and business resilience. Here we reflect on lessons learned in proactive communication from Silicon Valley Bank and other business powerhouses.

Proactive communication is key in times of crisis.

In the wake of the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) collapse this past week, we’re reminded of the power of narrative in challenging situations—and how important it is to take a proactive and clear approach to communications in difficult times. In other words, if you aren’t proactive in telling your own story, someone else will. 

Here we reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly of proactive communications.

The Good: Johnson & Johnson

In 1982, some bad actors in the Chicago area tampered with Tylenol bottles, replacing the medicinal capsules with cyanide pills, resulting in the deaths of seven people. When a local reporter called Johnson & Johnson for information about the incident, they didn’t even realize anything had gone awry—and had no strategic communication plan in place to deal with the situation.

Fortunately, using the J&J credo (a manifesto of sorts, outlining who the company was responsible to, how they should behave, and why it mattered), the company responded promptly, pulling Tylenol off the shelves (losing millions of dollars in the process) and opening a dialogue with the public via the press and ad campaigns until the issue could be resolved. 

This quick response helped avert a total brand collapse. By thinking fast and taking action, Johnson & Johnson was eventually able to regain public trust.

While coming up with the right response quickly is certainly part of the puzzle, having crisis management guidelines in place can make a world of difference. Because Johnson & Johnson was proactive in determining their public responsibilities, they were able to craft the right communications at the right time. 

For high-converting copy and content, get in touch with MarketSmiths today.

The Bad: The Exxon Oil Spill

Conversely, the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a case study in what not to do in these situations. In 1989, an oil super tanker struck a reef in Alaska, spilling over 10 million gallons of oil into the ocean—causing the second largest oil spill in US water. The spill decimated marine wildlife, affecting nearly thousands of miles of Alaska’s coastline.

But rather than issue an apology and take action, Exxon was slow to respond, treating the incident as a minor affair. The company’s chairman initially declined to comment for almost a week after the spill, and instead sent lower-ranking officials to the site to deal with the issue. Furthermore, Exxon continually made comments that contradicted other sources, minimizing the damage in a way that was just not true to the science. By the time Exxon finally got around to apologizing, it was too late.

Some worry that taking responsibility for a mistake or admitting error is a death sentence for public perception. In fact, usually the opposite is true. You can’t go back in time to fix a mistake. But you do have the power to shape the public’s perception of your mistake, by addressing it head on and working to fix it. In Exxon’s case, the public condemned the company not just for the spill, but for its ho-hum response as well, and the brand suffered. 

The Ugly: Silicon Valley Bank

Silicon Valley Bank was an institution which, less than a month ago, had been named by Forbes as one of the top 20 banks in America. Due to a confluence of events, including rising interest rates, the bank suddenly needed to raise $2.25 billion in capital to meet its obligations. On Wednesday, the company issued a press release announcing the capital raise without providing any context for why, or any reassurance as to the financial stability of the business (even though a mid-quarter update seemed to indicate the bank was on relatively firm footing).

Word spread, and the public invented its own narrative: clients started to assume the bank was in trouble, with high-profile investors like Peter Thiel advising companies to withdraw their funds. As panic escalated, the bank’s customers withdrew a startling $42 billion of deposits by the end of Thursday—just over 24 hours after the press release—leading to the bank’s collapse.

In today’s world, where news spreads at the speed of light and every action and word counts, clarity and context in copy communications are essentials. For Silicon Valley Bank, it could have helped to stem the tide of false assumptions and misinformation. Humans are storytelling creatures and if you don’t give them a story, they’ll make one up themselves—and it won’t necessarily be the one you want to tell. So be proactive and clear about the narratives you’re putting out into the world, in good times and bad. 

Ensure Effective Messaging in Critical Moments

When faced with a crisis, working with an experienced copywriting partner can be a lifesaver. We’ve helped businesses in a vast array of industries—from tech to finance to healthcare—solve their copywriting conundrums, and through it all, we’ve developed a knack for knowing exactly when and how to reach out to your audience. We’ll help you tell your story in your own words, before someone else gets a chance to invent their own version. To get started crafting a story that connects, contact the MarketSmiths team.

Paul Rosevear

Paul Rosevear

What do you get when you combine the soul of a musician with the mind of a writer? Copy that sings. And for the last decade, that’s precisely what Paul has delivered for global brands, bootstrap startups, and everything in between. When he’s not hard at work crafting top-notch communications, you can find Paul hanging with his wife and two young daughters, singing and playing guitar for The Vice Rags, or roaming the streets in search of the nearest slice of pizza.

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