Global business environment brings additional challenges for crisis communication. Time is an obvious issue; crisis management and communication needs to be “open 24/7”. Furthermore, knowledge and respect of the local culture may turn critical like the following example reveals.
A multinational corporation’s sluggish actions around a fatal accident in Japan created a turmoil in the local media but when global media picked upon the Japanese media turmoil and reported worldwide about the accident news, the local company crisis escalated into an industry wide global reputation crisis.
First, let me state a comforting fact that elevators are by far the safest mode of public transport. Fatal accidents to users of elevators are extremely rare – nearly non-existent. In June 2006, however, unfortunate events lead to very rare fatal accident in Tokyo in a Schindler elevator, when a teenager boy got stuck with his bicycle in an elevator that had already started moving upwards.
According to Japanese culture, a public apology by the management of the manufacturing company was expected to follow the accident. However, Schindler did not publish anything about the accident for some days to pass, and when they finally came out with a press release, the initial statement was a terse six line text. The lines contained a boilerplate condolence message to the family of the victim, stating that the company was cooperating with investigations and therefore no further comment was forthcoming at this time.
Five days after the accident, and still no public apology by the management. The ignorance of the local culture raised a furious reaction against Schindler in the Japanese media. “This kind of behavior reinforces the Japanese belief that overseas companies and foreign executives are overly sensitive to legal issues at the expense of the moral obligation of victim care” was quickly reported in international media about the Japanese reaction.
Ten days later, the Swiss executives finally apologized in public but the damage was already done – and not only Schindler itself but the entire industry was all of a sudden in the midst of a reputational crisis. Media on four continents pointed the finger at the industry, making all elevator companies “bad guys”. And not only that: for instance Kone, where I worked at the time, got questions to its sales units in Europe and in the Americas, whether such an accident could take place in Kone’s elevators. Thus, a local accident having occurred in competitor’s equipment in a foreign market had become an issue for their industry colleagues across oceans. Despite the fact that the event itself had nothing to do with Kone, we found ourselves in crisis communication mode. Corporate communications reminded all overseas colleagues about three important rules in crisis communication related to such a sad accident:
Collaborating with the Global technology and R&D as well as global safety unit, we prepared a backgrounder that allowed our colleagues at the units around the world to answer and provide facts, such as a reference to European Lifts Directive 95/16/EC requiring elevators to have a device to prevent uncontrolled upward movements of the car. All new Kone elevators were and are equipped with a certified solution to prevent the uncontrolled upward movement of the car. Thus, Schindler kind of a fatal accident would be impossible. Experience had furthermore shown that in those countries where the EU Directive on Safety (SNEL) had been adopted as a part of national legislation, the modernization of the safety equipment of ageing equipment was progressing fast, minimizing possibilities of similar type of accidents.
What can we learn from this case? First, communication decisions in a global company should always be aligned with local traditions, culture and expectations. Second, if there weren’t any local news in the interconnected world of 2006 anymore – think about this case in today’s social media environment! Third, this particular case showed that a neighbor’s crisis can all of a sudden become our crisis – the accident touched only one of the elevator companies but all companies in the industry got involved. Fourth, time is scarce, and preparedness to the worst enables fast actions in the real crisis. Finally, manuals won’t do the communication in crisis – it is people talking to people.
My personal belief has always been that crisis should be handled as any other communication event, with: