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Marketing’s Emergency Room

  • “What happened? When did it happen? What did you do once you found out it happened? How can you assure the public that it won’t happen again?”

Doug Duvall


Crisis management: It’s one thing to go through the motions of damage control when your social media team tweets an off-color joke that triggers a few hours of online outrage. It’s quite another to protect your company’s reputation while facing down a media tidal wave involving things like murders, suicides, bombings, hurricanes, and other true disasters that they don’t prepare you for in business school...or anywhere else.

These situations are marketing’s equivalent of when a heart attack patient is rolled frantically into the emergency room, requiring an immediate quadruple bypass. The surgeon in charge must be experienced, sure-handed, and unshakably confident in his or her ability to save the life that hangs in the balance.

With that in mind, meet Sprint’s Doug Duvall. For crises large and small, every company should be lucky enough to have someone like Doug, Vice President of Corporate Communications, playing quarterback when the you-know-what hits the fan. Crisis management is a very specific expertise, one that requires someone like Doug at the helm for everyone to sleep well at night. But it’s also something every marketing professional should have a working proficiency in, and internalizing Doug’s insights here can make that happen.

What types of crises have you experienced at Sprint?

Most of the routine crises involve our network. Our nationwide network is the backbone of our company and it’s the infrastructure that enables our fifty-six million customers to call, text, check email, or watch a video on their mobile device. Today we’re so reliant on smartphones, and when there’s a network outage it’s understandable that customers become frustrated. So we’re really conscious about threats to our network—whether it’s from a construction crew accidentally cutting a fiber line or from weather events like storms, hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes.

What is the worst crisis or near-crisis you’ve experienced?

Before joining Sprint I spent seven years at Freddie Mac. I managed the public relations team and we had our fair share of crises from the government suddenly taking over control of the company, to foreclosures, to protests at company headquarters.

But the one crisis that stands out to me, and probably to most employees at that time, was waking up to the news that our CFO had committed suicide. It was completely unexpected and yet another major emotional shock to employees, who had already been through a lot. And to make matters worse, our critics tried to make the incident more of a conspiracy about “what did he know, and what was he hiding?”

What were the key steps you took to diffuse the situation?

My boss and I quickly drafted a public statement and he walked it down the hall to get approved by the CEO. We felt it was important not to use “corporate speak” and to express our sincere sorrow in plain English. That’s critical in any crisis, but particularly one that involves a human tragedy. We talked about what kind of man and leader he was and how he will be most remembered for “his personal warmth, his sense of humor, and his quick wit.” We posted the statement on our website and quickly sent it to reporters who covered us regularly. But given this was in the midst of the financial crisis, we had calls from all over the world, and from non-traditional outlets like Entertainment Tonight. I even did a radio interview with BBC, talking about the kind of person he was and what a tragedy it was for the company and his family. We also developed an internal communications plan that included a memorial event, and to respect his family’s privacy, we developed protocol on who would have interaction with the family.

What are the organizational requirements to avoid surprises?

It’s important to have designated crisis representatives from across the company. We have a person on Sprint’s Corporate Communications team whose primary job is to manage crises, whenever they may occur. She has a backup, and he has a backup too. But she is part of a larger company-wide team and regularly works with crisis representatives from our Network division, corporate security, sales, marketing, legal, government affairs, IT, etc.

You may hear about a crisis occurring in a number of different ways—through social media, breaking news, or a phone call. But everyone needs to know who to escalate it to and that’s why we have designated people. So whoever might first hear of a crisis, they know who to send it to for managing the issue.

Once you hear of a potential crisis, how do you begin to manage it?

Well, it’s definitely a team effort, but I start by asking four simple questions at the onset of any crisis, no matter the issue or size of the organization:

  1. What happened?
  2. When did it happen?
  3. What did you do once you found out it happened?
  4. How can you assure the public that it won’t happen again?

If you have decent answers to these basic questions, you’ll survive the crisis. When you see a corporate or political crisis lasting longer than it should, usually there wasn’t a solid answer to questions three and four.

After you have a sense of what happened and the scope of the problem, how do you communicate it internally and externally?

Tone is important, and a crisis is not a time for spin. Mike McCurry, President Clinton’s former press secretary, advises corporate clients to think about the “C’s” when communicating during a crisis:

  • Clarity. Use understandable, plain English.
  • Credibility. Be authentic and willing to address shortcomings.
  • Compassion. Remember there’s a person on the other side of this crisis.
  • Commitment. Devote the time and resources to resolve issue.

Further reading:

Gary Vaynerchuk, The Thank You Economy

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