Gini Dietrich

What You Can Learn from Honda to Prepare for a Crisis

By: Gini Dietrich | February 24, 2016 | 

What You Can Learn from Honda to Prepare for a CrisisBy Gini Dietrich

Remember the time you saw on Facebook that your sister was having major surgery…and it was the first you were hearing about it?

Or that your sister-in-law’s baby was born?

Or that your niece was accepted to her Ivy League school of choice?

It doesn’t feel very good, does it?

Seeing big family life events on Facebook before you hear about them from your family.

We like to be in the know and that certainly doesn’t make us feel that way.

That is exactly what happened with Honda customers earlier this month.

The automaker announced on Wednesday, February 3, that even more Honda and Acura vehicles are being recalled to replace Takata-manufactured airbags.

(For those of you who aren’t following this story, it’s not pretty. They’ve been recalling cars with these airbags in them for years, yet—by all accounts—refuse to use a different manufacturer.)

The problem with this latest announcement?

Online conversation about it erupted the day before the formal announcement, as you can see by this handy chart we pulled from Zignal Labs, the nifty media monitoring tool we use.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 6.02.40 AM

The bigger issue for Honda is the Takata airbags have been a problem since at least 2004, when an airbag ruptured in a 2002 Honda Accord.

Since then, the problem has snowballed.

Amidst recalls for the same issue just a year ago, the Honda president stepped down and they now have recalled close to 12 million vehicles in the United States, with the latest action recalling an additional two million.

This, of course, is not a PR problem. This is a manufacturing problem. 

But when it involves more than 14 million customers and social media, it quickly becomes a PR problem.

I do not envy the Honda PR team right now.

They have certainly had their hands full for a good 15 months, and it’s easy for me to sit here and armchair quarterback.

That said, there are a few things you can learn from them to make sure your announcement is the first to hit the social networks.

How to Get Ahead of the Message

One of my favorite crisis management experts is Melissa Agnes at Agnes + Day.

She has a great issues management response flow chart that every PR team should use when planning for a crisis.

Start there.

It helps you think through whether the situation will continue to escalate, how much negative attention it’s getting and whether or not it will die off, and if the facts are correct.

Once you’re able to answer those three questions, the flowchart leads you in different directions as you think through every scenario.

I am confident the Honda PR team has done all of these things, as evidenced by the decrease in negative mentions online just two days after the company’s announcement.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 6.05.53 AM

They also have done some other things really well.

Here are five things you can—and should—do to prepare yourself for any and all issues or crises.

Crisis Management is in the Preparation

1. Define your audience. Clearly define who you’re trying to reach with your message, and determine the most effective ways to communicate with them. In the case of Honda, one of the major sticking points is customers will hear from them—via snail mail—in the next 60 days. As well, cars may not be fixed until late this fall or early winter. That’s a long time to drive a car that could have a faulty airbag without any communication from the automaker.

Their communication plan should include an email distributed to all customers, as well as the planned letter mailed to their home. It’s not enough to have just a sweeping public announcement. The parties who will be affected most, both internally and externally, need to be at the top of your outreach efforts.

2. Have a plan. When creating a communications plan for a public announcement affecting your customers, you should include:

  • All possible scenarios;
  • Your official statement;
  • Questions you anticipate from your customers (and their answers);
  • Questions you anticipate from the media;
  • A clear escalation path outlining which questions and issues get elevated; and
  • Contact information for all internal parties on that escalation path.

3. Prepare your internal team. Your audience won’t just be external. Whether you’re a big or small organization, your employees will be the first line of defense during a major announcement. Make sure they’re prepared to answer customer questions. If your employees are unprepared, they will be frustrated, your customers will be frustrated, and the situation will continue to escalate. In the age of social media, a single tweet from a single frustrated customer can turn everything into a potential communications crisis (as noted by one tweet about the Honda recalls shared 151 times).

4. Be vigilant about media outreach. Staying ahead of the game is crucial. Have your public statements ready. If you are prohibited from saying anything, be proactive and let your media contacts to them know when, and if, a statement will be made. This makes you look cooperative and not like you’re trying to hide something.

The more holes there are in communication, the more it’s likely to be filled with speculation. Once the information is out there, it’s harder to correct the course. This is where your social media team also comes into play, with search alerts and diligent listening.

5. Be prepared to apologize…and mean it. No matter how prepared you are, something can go askew. You would be amazed at how well “I’m sorry” works if you’re genuine. There should be no excuses or finger-pointing following that apology. There should be no “I’m sorry, but…” Just a genuine apology and a plan for how you will fix the situation.

The trust your customers have for you is crucial. It’s not about never making mistakes. The key is being fully prepared to communicate that mistake, and telling your customers what you will do to fix it.

A version of this first appeared on the Zignal Labs blog, where you will find me twice a month.

image credit: shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • If only they could seamlessly get all employees on the same page through simple communications technology.

    • Who’s to say they haven’t? They may well have – they don’t necessarily need to advise that they have, as long as it’s in place.

      I work for a government agency and we’re regulated like you wouldn’t believe. Being government, we’re also seen to be “old and grey” when it comes to internal and external comms, but nothing could be further from the truth.

      However, we don’t go out of our way to shout, “Hey, we have an awesome internal comms process that keeps everyone up-to-date and advises who are point people, etc”.

    • I would assume you DO know if they’re using Dynamic Signal. But if not, I agree it’s a great tool to get them on the same page.

  • This, this is PR. I type that b/c as a driver of another car that’s been hammered w/ recalls and issues over the years, I sorta kinda pay a little attention to these things. Toyota has had its woes, VW for sure, etc. and yet .. didn’t know this about Honda, certainly not to this extent. People I know still buy and swear by Honda (and Toyota), about quality and durability, about ease of repair and resale value. That’s reputation, that is long term brand value and PR.

    To wit, your conclusion: WORD!! Mistakes happen. Anything designed, manufactured and marketed by humans to humans will have issues and failures and problems. It’s what you know, when you know it, what you do next, what you do to learn and improve – and yes, communicate that! – that makes the difference. FWIW.

    • You should dig into the Honda airbag issue. I didn’t know it’s as big a problem as it is. Which begs the question, in my mind, why don’t they find a new airbag manufacturer?

  • Two thoughts. One – it sure is hard (in some cases) to actually GET THE RECALL done …. my daughter took three trips (long story) for them to get it together, which is a different PR issue I guess. And I still have to get my CRV in. SIGHHHH. // The second thought is, though, I found myself in an interesting vantage point when I went to the International Auto Show in Miami — I was there on a project with Chevrolet, but we had a bigger overarching purpose to socially share the show in general. I found it interesting talking to the Volkswagen people, who were still in the midst of THEIR PR crisis —- they were talking about how loyal actual VW drivers were and the fact that for those drivers, their loyalty and love of the product was higher priority than the PR crisis.

    • What’s interesting is the VW thing is not a PR crisis. It’s a bad decision, bad operations, bad leadership issue. But everyone likes to blame PR when it all goes wrong.

      • Hmmmm….that’s an important distinction to make.

        Does VW’s PR staff/function have a role to play in mitigating the fallout from the bad decision? THX.

        • Yes, of course. Because it always goes to PR when there is a reputation issue at hand.

  • Ingrid

    So many people or companies I’d like to share (as in stand in front of them and read it out loud to them…twice) this with lol. Especially in this part of the world.
    I haven’t been following up too much on this story though I’ve heard and read up a bit.
    Great crash course/tips in Crisis Management 101.
    Gonna check out Melissa Agnes as well. Not familiar with her. Thanks a lot Gin.

  • Megan

    Hi, Gini.

    Oh my gosh, this is very terrifying, considering I drive a 1999 Honda Civic and I had no idea this was happening. But like you mentioned, this is not a PR problem. I loved the tips you gave about how to handle a crisis and it is so true that you HAVE to use preemptive strike to get ahead of the crisis, and not wait for customers or competition to bash on them. First, it shows that you are not hiding anything from the public and also can let your audience know that you are already solving the issue. It is crucial in crisis management. Although, since Honda is such a reliable brand, I think their customers will still stay loyal to them no matter what. I think there is a lot to take away from here and I am very interested in crisis communication, so a great read with many useful tips! Thanks!

    • As a side note: If you haven’t already, you should look up the recalls. It sounds like they airbag issue is in A LOT of the cars.