3 Crisis Management Nightmares... and How to Avoid Them

We don't want to keep you up at night, but the likelihood your organisation will face some form of crisis is growing. Research by McKinsey found that, between 2010 and 2017, headlines containing 'crisis' alongside one of Forbes Top 100 companies appeared over 80% more frequently than the decade previous.

But when disaster's at your doorstep, what can you do to avoid ruin?

In an oft-quoted speech from 1959, President John F. Kennedy said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”

On the one hand, crises can be disastrous, leading to tumbling stock prices, resignations, and immeasurable reputational damage. On the other, they can be an opportunity to demonstrate your organisation’s preparedness, maturity, and values. Let's take a look at some examples of lousy crisis management and see how you can learn from the mistakes of others.

Put Your Best Face Forward

In 2010, tragedy struck the Gulf Coast. A BP-owned oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded, leading to the deaths of 11 workers and the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. A monumental crisis by anyone’s measurement.

Still, somehow, BP managed to make things worse. Tony Hayward, the former CEO of the oil giant, made mistake after mistake. Firstly, he tried to shift blame for the incident during an interview with the BBC. "This was not our accident … This was not our drilling rig ... This was Transocean's rig. Their systems. Their people. Their equipment," he said.

He then appeared to be unconcerned about the environmental impact of the incident during an interview with the Guardian, where he stated that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean.”

But by far his greatest blunder, and the one that ultimately led to his resignation, was telling NBC’s Today programme, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I want my life back. This comment gave the impression that he was only interested in himself, despite the loss of life, jobs, and the catastrophic environmental damage inflicted on the Gulf.

There are many crisis management lessons to be learned from the BP oil spill, but Tony Hayward’s awful handling of the media is perhaps the most significant. The entire situation is a playbook on how not to deal with journalists during an incident.

As part of your contingency planning process, consider providing your executives with media training. This will help them communicate more effectively, tackle tough questions head-on, and appear more genuine and sympathetic – unlike Tony, in his apology video below.

In this age of 24/7 news, where stories and videos can be shared across the world in an instant, being well-prepared to communicate effectively with the media is essential for any company looking to avoid making their situation any worse during the handling of a crisis.

Discover a practical approach to contingency planning structure and content –  download our free guide. 

Avoid Social Media Meltdowns 

The slower you react to an incident, the less control you have over the narrative. United Airlines learned this the hard way in 2017 when, infamously, a passenger was dragged against his will off one of their planes. It took just minutes for footage of this awful behaviour to appear on social media, as you can see below.

It took United Airlines until the next day to issue an apology. An apology which didn’t even say sorry for treating the passenger badly.

One single day might not seem like too long to issue a response, but it was already too little too late. People were already sharing tweets and Facebook posts making fun of the airline's reaction to the situation.

United Airlines’s slow reaction and inability to direct the story led to $1 billion being wiped off its market value and immeasurable damage being done to its reputation. This could have all been avoided if they had gotten ahead of the story, immediately taken responsibility, apologised, and explained how they were working to fix the situation.

Social media may increase the chances of a crisis being exacerbated, but it's also a powerful tool for taking control of the narrative. Again, it’s all about crisis preparation. Organisations should aim to have a strong social media strategy planned out well in advance of an incident. This should include template social posts and processes for monitoring social platforms throughout the crisis. 

Defend Against Hackers

Cyber-crime is on the rise. In fact, 41% of organisations view cyber-threats as the biggest risk they face. Hackers are always finding more advanced ways of gaining access to your business and, more importantly, your customers' private data. It's hard to think of an incident that could be as harmful to your organisation than betraying your customer's trust by failing to protect their personal information.

Imagine, then, how it must feel to fall victim to the biggest data breach in history? That's what happened to Yahoo in 2013, when 3 billion user accounts were compromised. This massive loss of private data had many repercussions. They were forced to slash the price of their business by $350 million when they sold it to Verizon in 2014, have been fined over $50 million by the US courts alone, and their brand has been left forever tarnished. 

One of the most embarrassing aspects of this debacle is that Yahoo took two years to spot that a cyber-attack had even taken place. That's four times the average. It's clear that Yahoo, despite the many breaches it's dealt with in the past, was ill-prepared to handle cyber-attacks. 

To avoid a similar fate, companies should ensure their incident management plan accounts for cyber-threats of all types. You need to know who needs to be alerted, how you will inform customers who have been affected, and how you will ring-fence the breach before more damage is done. 

No matter how much money is spent on cyber-security, it's likely that if hackers want access to your data, they will find a way of getting it. We're not saying you shouldn't invest in the latest security technologies, but you must also prepare for the steps you'll take if you ever are on the receiving end of a cyber-attack.


We hope these three horrific crisis management nightmares have made you realise the importance of crisis preparation. All three of the examples given here could have been mitigated if the organisations involved had given more forethought to their incident management strategy.

Have you already written a solid contingency plan for your company? If not, our free, practical guide on how to write one is essential reading.

New Call-to-action

By Andrew Carvell

Andy is the Managing Director of One Voice’s international business, based in London and has worked with incident and crisis management solutions since 2010. He has a particular focus on the aviation and energy sectors and works closely with One Voice’s partner Control Risks to broaden the service offering of both parties. Andy has a degree in law from the University of Nottingham and outside of work, enjoys rugby, golf and outdoor pursuits.

More blog posts from this author

Subscribe to the blog