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The Worst- and Best-Handled Crisis Communications of the Year Revealed By CrisisResponsePro: NFL’s “DeflateGate” is Top Clunker

Asking for help. Frustrated young beard man holding piece of paper and asking for help while sitting at his working place in officeCrisisResponsePro, a subscription portal for crisis and litigation communications, has released its first annual list of the worst- and best-handled crisis communications responses of 2015.

“Our big winner this year is NFL’s Deflategate, which tops our list as the worst crisis communications response of 2015,” said Jim Haggerty, founder and CEO of CrisisResponsePro, in a news release. “The NFL knows a thing or two about fumbles, and with their botched communications response to Deflategate, they really took the air out of this year’s Super Bowl.”

The Top Five Worst

1. National Football League (Deflategate)

Everyone involved in the Deflategate scandal in January handled it badly, but the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell take the prize. They basically communicated nothing to the fans other than that they were launching an investigation, which they said would be “pursued expeditiously,” then took months. Goodell’s decision to uphold quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension was generally excoriated, with those who looked at the transcripts stating that much of what the commissioner wrote contradicted the testimony. A court tossed the suspension, finding Brady’s rights to due process were trampled (the league has appealed). The NFL’s reputation (already sullied by concussion and domestic-violence scandals, among other issues) wasn’t exactly varnishedby its handling of this one.

2. Volkswagen (emissions scandal)

Life hasn’t been the same for Volkswagen since U.S. regulators accused it of cheating on emissions tests. The company’s stock and sales have tumbled. A major problem was that Volkswagen had no crisis-detection systemto ferret out that someone was gaming the system (it’s now blaming a small group of engineers). Its first move was to put out a bland statement saying little. A few days later, then–CEO Martin Winterkorn apologized but customers had a hard time buying the boilerplate about their trust being what Volkswagen cherishes most. Mere days later, Winterkorn resigned. The company’s supervisory-board chairman and new CEO gave a public accounting on Dec. 10, but its efforts continue to not impress.

3. Valeant Pharmaceuticals (accounting accusations)

Drugmaker Valeant’s stock has plummeted for the simple reason that people don’t believe what it’s saying (except for investor Bill Ackman). The company was already under fire for price hikes when it took on more scrutiny after a researcher on October 21 said it may be using a network of specialty pharmacies to create fake sales. Its explanations for (and non-disclosure of) that relationship were just weird. A crisis in which you’re being compared to Enronrequires a more forthright response. Valeant did issue a statement addressing the factual disputes. When that didn’t quell the storm, it held an hour-plus-long conference call complete with an 88-slide deck that likely brought more confusion than enlightenment. It appointed a committee to investigate the situation. It finally cut ties with the main pharmacy. But people still don’t know what the story is and that’s a communications problem.

4. Subway (Jared Fogle)

Back in July when the FBI raided Jared Fogle’s home as part of a child-pornography investigation, Subway was generally praised for immediately suspending its 15-year relationship with its spokesman. But in August, when news came out that Fogle would plead guilty, Subway’s response was a terse tweet: “We no longer have a relationship with Jared and have no further comment.” The sandwich chain put out a slightly longer tweet the next day, which kept the story going. Then more details … then more statements. This “drip, drip, drip” approach to messaging showed that Subway had no communications strategy—even though it had six weeks between FBI raid and official charges to develop one.

5. Fifa (corruption scandal)

On May 27 a slew of World Cup soccer officials and others were arrested in a $150 million corruption prosecution in the U.S. Fifa, the World Cup governing body, said in its first statement that the probe was “for the good of football.” Two days later, Sepp Blatter was reelected as Fifa president (he was suspended shortly after he announced he would resign). In June, Fifa’s communications director was forced to resign after cracking a joke about the arrests. The situation was so farcical that in a video statement proclaiming his innocence, Jack Warner, the arrested former Fifa VP, invoked a satirical Onion piece (which he apparently thought was earnest) claiming the U.S. made the arrests because it lost its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. On December 3, the U.S. disclosed an additional 16 indictments. All in all, Fifa never got hold of the situationand never communicated in a way to convince anyone that it ever would.

Dishonorable Mentions

Dishonorable mentions go to:’s delayed response to the New York Times article that critiqued its culture—two months too late; Ashley Madison’s withholding and defensive response to its notorious data breach; and Blue Bellfor its ice-cream contamination crisis, which it initially blamed on a single machine … until the company was forced to recall its entire product line.

The Top Five Best

1. Lufthansa (Germanwings crash)
After an initial misstep, Lufthansa’s handling of the deliberate crashing of a Germanwings plane by one of its pilots on March 24 was first rate. That mistake was CEO Carsten Spohr’s contention that the pilot was “100 percent fit to fly without caveats” before having to admit he suffered from depression. Among the things it did, Lufthansa arranged for flights for the victims’ families, grayed out its Lufthansa and Germanwings logos (as AirAsia did after its December 2014 crash), and smartly canceled its 60th anniversary celebrations. Three days after the crash, it announced a new policy that two authorized crew members must be in the cockpit at all times. Spohr’s messages about the crash were emotional and showed deep sympathy.

2. Whole Foods (pricing scandal)

In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs accused Whole Foods of grossly overcharging customers for weighted prepackaged items. The food retailer, colloquially known as “Whole Paycheck,” had gone through a similar situation on the West Coast and its New York customers were obviously upset. At first, Whole Foods bemoaned the state’s “overreaching allegations” and “grossly excessive monetary demands.” But when it was flooded with negative reactions on its social-media accounts, the company executed an impressive turnaround. Co-CEOs Walter Robb and John Mackey put up a videothat admitted to and apologized for the overcharging (“Straight up, we made some mistakes”). It also outlined changes to prevent future pricing problems, such as increasing staff training and using third-party auditing to track improvements.

3. United Airlines (political scandal)

This year has been an annus horribilisfor United Airlines. Computer glitches grounded flights. Mention of it being the fifth anniversaryof its Continental merger only reminded what a disaster that’s been. The federal government is trying to block its slot swap with Delta at Newark and JFK airports. Most importantly, the feds have been probing whether the company bribed the (now ex-) chairman of the port authority for improvements at Newark. And yet, United’s handling of that last crisis is what has earned it kudos. United launched an internal investigation, forced out CEO Jeff Smisek (and two others), and replaced him with a permanent rather than interim CEO. Each move was communicated well each step of the way (with one caveat: Five weeks after it appointed Oscar Munoz to replace Smisek, United was stingy in its communications approach when Munoz was suddenly hospitalized).

4. Chipotle (E. coli)

The E. coli crisis that hit in late October wasn’t Chipotle’s only food-poisoning scare this year, but it certainly was the stickiest. While the issues continue (and spread to norovirus in Boston), Chipotle’s approach thus far has been admirable. When health officials in Seattle and Portland told the company they were investigating 20 E. coli cases, Chipotle proactively decided to temporarily shut down 43 restaurants in Oregon and Washington—far more than were thought to be connected to the problem. It also kept the public informed. On November 3, the Denver-based chain released a statement detailing all it had done to combat the crisis, including sanitizing those restaurants. A week later, it put out another release saying it would re-open the restaurants and smartly repeating what it had done to address the problem. On Dec. 10, founder Steve Ells went on the Today show and nailed it by providing information and apologizing to those who got sick. And just today he apologized in full-page newspaper ads. Whatever operational problems—or bad luck—the company continues to experience, Chipotle’s communications are impressive.

5. NBC News (Brian Williams)

NBC News did a good job of dealing with the mess after star anchor Brian Williams was found to have fabricated certain aspects of his personal story. The main problem the network faced was Williams himself—his first attempts at explanation were badly botched. NBC was hampered by Williams’ weak accounts and apologies. Then, as The New York Timesreported, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Officer Stephen B. Burke took control and began overseeing a series of secret meetings—two a day until the matter was resolved. NBC did what’s crucial in any crisis—it gathered the facts. In this case, it appointed one of its own journalists to conduct an internal probe of Williams’ reporting. NBC officials announced they were suspending Williams for six months without pay.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions go to: Amtrak for constantly keeping the public informed about its May 12 derailment in Philadelphia; Apple’s quick response to Taylor Swift’s letter concerning its new streaming service; and TLC’s quick canceling of its 19 Kids and Counting show after a sexual scandal.

Source:; edited by Richard Carufel

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