In almost every crisis, it’s not entirely clear whom to blame. At least, not at first.
But customers and the public are quick to assign blame anyway, complicating efforts to conduct a proper investigation and publish the results.
A study by professors Daniel Laufer, Kate Gillespie, Brad McBride and Silvia Gonzalez found that the severity of the crisis often influences observers’ assessment of blame. “As perceptions of crisis severity increase, more blame is assessed to the firm,” the researchers found. “Companies need to understand how consumers react,” Laufer said in a video on the topic at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where he is professor of marketing.
Laufer said he discovered differences in how older and younger consumers assign blame. “Older consumers blame companies less for ambiguous crisis than younger consumers,” he said. And “women blame a company more than men for an ambiguous product-harm crisis.” Laufer suggests that people who see themselves as vulnerable are more likely to assign blame to a company, whether or not they were personally impacted.
Southwest Airlines Co. chief communications officer Linda Rutherford described how she handled ambiguous crisis in 2017. The company used Facebook Live for the first time following a massive technology outage that cancelled thousands of flights.
“You may not fully understand what happened, but it’s an ongoing conversation, so tell the truth as much as you can and tell it quickly,” Rutherford said. “The most important thing is to say what you know, when you know it.”
That doesn’t mean the company is responding ad hoc. Rutherford works with legal partners to prepare statement templates and digital assets ahead of a possible crisis. “We have artwork that has been created for several different types of situations — if there was a significant loss of life, we have options to go monochromatic and options to go black and white,” she said.
But it’s also important to understand your own customers when responding to a crisis. Fried chicken restaurant KFC encountered delivery problems with its supply chain, forcing the company to close hundreds of its stores in the United Kingdom in 2018. It responded with a funny advertisement that switched the logo on the paper buckets from “KFC” to “FCK” and the words “We’re sorry.” The company’s mostly younger customers appreciated the off-color humor. One reporter wrote “The ad has gone down well on social media — we Brits appear to be a forgiving bunch.”