The black and white case for crisis planning

When accountability counts

We’ve all experienced those toe curling moments when companies get it wrong. When Tesco forgot to cancel its Goodnight everyone, we’re hitting the hay Tweet just as the horsemeat scandal broke; or when Krispy Kreme launched a new social media initiative called KKK Wednesdays. Needless to say neither did anything to win consumer confidence.

However, a bad situation can often be turned round by taking accountability. In both instances, Tesco and Krispy Kreme apologised quickly and clawed back trust within their respective market places.  They had robust and strategic crisis management plans in place (led from the CEO and cascaded through the business) and were ready to activate when things went wrong.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Chinese laundry detergent Qiaobi, which recently made one of the biggest advertising blunders Asia has ever seen. The Huffington Post even said, “Qiaobi detergent ad might be the most racist TV commercial ever made.”

The ad’s bizarre content shows a girl forcing a pouch of Qiaobi cleaning liquid into a black man’s mouth, bundling him into a washing machine and then, after a cycle of muffled screams, she opens the lid to a grinning Asian man. He winks at the viewer before the slogan flashes up on screen: Change begins with Qiaobi.

While the ad aired for a few months in China without much backlash, once it spread out of China it quickly gained momentum online, sparking global controversy, a barrage of negative media commentary in the world’s most prestigious publications and almost universal disgust.

Perhaps the worst part was the company’s response, which was to say that any discrimination was in the eye of the viewer. They responded without accountability, blaming critics for their overreaction and brandished “foreign media” for overreacting too.

Not every company will make the mistakes Qiaobi did, but many do underestimate the paramount importance of crisis management planning. Had Qiaobi put a considered and consistent plan in place, the outcome could have been very different. They would have had thoughtful holding statements ready for key target media at the right time. Taking responsibility for the problem and apologising (are you listening, lawyers?) takes the heat right out of a situation. Blaming consumers and the media does not.

Being able to engage communications experts alongside senior management is key. The absence of such a plan in the Qiaobi case is clear and has impacted profitability and shareholder value.

Companies with a crisis communications plan don’t always avoid crises, but their careful planning allows them to stop wildfire spreading. It might be too late for Qiaobi but it’s not too late for you.