If you belong to one of those families with the unfortunate custom of going around the Thanksgiving table so everyone can declare what they’re thankful for, what do you usually say? Are you grateful to be among people you love? Blessed by good health or a thriving career? Fortunate that your children are so well-adjusted you don’t need to advertise their academic achievements on the back of your Volvo?
Me? I’m just thankful to get the asinine exercise over with for another year.
If you own or manage a business, hopefully you can also give thanks for another year without a major reputational disaster. But if you did deal with a crisis and emerged with your balance sheet and stomach lining intact, chances are you have even more to be thankful for. You just might not realize it yet.
It’s at this point that your typical PR blogger might pull out the old adage about how the word “crisis” in Chinese is spelled with two symbols that represent “danger” and “opportunity.” I’m sorry to tell you that’s been thoroughly debunked, but the idea is right. It’s simply a matter of how you look at things.
If you look at crises like most people do – as unwelcome, ill-timed distractions that need be managed as quickly as possible with minimal scarring – you’re missing a huge opportunity.
That’s because there is no better time for an organization to show what it’s made of and remind people why it is worthy of their attention, their trust and hopefully their dollars, than when the proverbial shit is totally hitting the fan.
A crisis offers many opportunities. It can be a chance to show compassion and humility; to demonstrate responsibility and integrity by coming clean quickly, delivering a proper apology and laying out a plan to set things right; to update fossilized policies or practices to better reflect what customers expect of companies today; even to marshal action on a critical issue.
Very simply, a crisis is a rare chance for an organization to prove that its values are more than words on a page by living them in public, in real time, while people are paying attention.
Your stakeholders aren’t looking to be surprised. And there lies the opportunity. It doesn’t take a lot to stand out in a good way in a crisis. You just have to do more than people expect, which means more than they’ve seen others do in similar circumstances.
Take, for example, the revered East Coast supermarket chain Wegmans, which transformed a shipment of tainted peaches into an opportunity to spark industry dialogue, challenge the regulatory status quo and enhance consumer safety.
The opportunity arose when a supplier notified the grocer that peaches from Australia might be contaminated by a trace amount of Listeria bacteria. While the level of bacteria found by inspectors was low enough for Australian authorities to consider the fruit safe for consumption, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration enforced a strict zero-tolerance policy for listeria.
Wegmans launched an immediate recall of the affected peaches and store-baked pies in which they were used. It was by all accounts a well-orchestrated, by-the-book response by a company widely acclaimed for its dedication to food safety and customers-first policies. But it left CEO Danny Wegman wondering if the company had done enough, and whether the FDA’s zero-tolerance policy, the strictest in the world, might inadvertently be exposing consumers to greater risk, not less.
Wegman began sharing his concerns with his management team and others in the industry, in particular experts’ growing belief that the FDA’s zero-tolerance standard discouraged produce distributors from testing products for listeria prior to shipment. Wegman’s efforts ultimately brought grocers, growers and distributors to the table with regulators from the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control to set new guidelines that encouraged more voluntary testing, reducing the risk to consumers even further and cementing Wegmans’ legacy as a safety leader.
So, instead of heading straight for the Pepto, try looking at your next crisis as an opportunity instead of a disaster. You might just wind up in a better place than where you started. You’ll have good reason to be thankful – and something new to tell your relatives next year. And if you safely enjoy a piece of peach pie during your celebration, you can thank Mr. Wegman.