When crisis planning hits a snag

The recent Bunnings onion snafu is the perfect example of a crisis you could never anticipate. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to plan for it anyway, writes crisis comms expert Gerry McCusker.

Lest you missed it, Bunnings’ issues management plan had to be activated after the leaking of a company stakeholder communication on BBQ sausage sandwich protocol: When serving barbie’d bangers, onions are to be placed on the bread before the sausage to minimise the threat of onion-based spills that could result in personnel slips and falls, it intimated.

So really, what was so terrible about this sensible stakeholder suggestion?

When Bunnings’ issues and risk team was scenario planning for business or PR threats, they could have been forgiven for not serving up a crisis simulation based on a sausage and onion PR disaster that would propel them into the world media spotlight. In truth, even a crisis simulation sage might slip up on not envisioning such a left-field scenario.

Crisis simulation

Yet crisis rehearsals should be the time to think imaginatively, widely and wildly about all possible operational or reputation threats and to practice what, when and how you’re going to communicate a response. In fairness to Bunnings, it seems there may have been genuine onion-accident precedents (and insurance pressures, no doubt) which had prompted the need for a stakeholder brief.

While the Bunnings advisory bore the hallmarks of responsible (if a bit nanny-ish) PR/stakeholder relations, the company was derided and lampooned by a wide number of social media posters (circa 1763 social media posts said my monitoring portal) and many more online news outlets with massive audience reach.

Part of good scenario and issues management planning is to calculate the likely response to and reach of any and all communications your business plans to publish. It’s evident the hardware retailer under-cooked their estimations of the onion advisory’s potential impact.

But that’s what scenario planning and crisis rehearsals aim to do – help you peer into the future.

When good PR becomes bad PR

The story touched a nerve – perhaps about over-protectiveness – and a lot of the criticisms created and posted online by everyday Aussies were highly creative and funny (which helped the story’s virality). The tale soon posted internationally and would have reached tens of millions of people. The NY Times even headlined that: ‘Australians Declare Existential Crisis Over Onion Placement’.

The New York Times article

Every day, companies are being critiqued and castigated for not doing the right thing. Ethical and professional public relations – basically helping companies listen and respond to stakeholder feedback – can help organisations behave and relate better.

But one of the key truths in modern reputation management, is that so many audiences will take offence, even when none was actually given or intended. Were Bunnings good intentions misread?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean they were faultless in gauging sentiment or how they reacted to the issue.

Run an issues audit

We ran an online issues audit to search for Bunnings’ response to the stuffing (sorry) they’d been getting. A trans-media audit shows where the issue heat is, who’s talking about it and what the sentiment is on the topics and terms discussed. Without exposing what was a pretty revealing inventory, the biggest deficiency we spotted was resistance to using staff to help turn the issue around.

Staff ambassadors in a crisis

With real people as its advertising brand ambassadors, did Bunnings miss an opportunity to tell its side of the story in a human, natural and maybe even humorous way? Or did hunker down seem a better strategy, for reasons outsiders may never quite understand?

Certainly in a week where Bunnings staff were among the heroes who helped spot and thwart a domestic terrorism plot, the good news of that brand story was overshadowed by the bad onion PR.

In today’s highly critical reputation environment, some businesses can’t even get a break for doing a right thing, far less doing the wrong thing.

McCusker is orchestrating a live crisis simulation at next year’s CommsCon, which will test the audience against the streamlined four-stage process for best managing modern crisis communications. Issues arising may include: How do we handle fake news? What about social media snipers? Reigning in that silly staffer! And where does that wannabe minister get off chastising us…?

Book your earlybird tickets here.

Gerry McCusker is the author of ‘PR Disasters’ and owner of crisis simulation tool The Drill.


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