Just think about BP during the Gulf oil spill in 2010. Millions of gallons of crude oil gushed unchecked into pristine waters, day after day, week after week. If there was a public opinion survey in the weeks after the spill, what would it have found? Answer: 70 percent said BP handled it poorly.

The company could not have handled the immediate aftermath of the disaster more poorly. Initial sustained silence from senior officials, gobs of inaccuracies, even some perceived callousness and insolence. But then the company embarked on a new course, with a sustained, collaborative public relations effort — and changing facts on the ground — that continues to this day.

And last time I checked, they’re still in business. In fact, by the end of 2011, BP had five deepwater drilling rigs in operation in the Gulf of Mexico. No public outcry 18 months later. 

Netflix raised a firestorm among its subscribers in 2011 when it announced separate subscription fees for its DVD-by-mail and Internet streaming services. Its original base plan price had been $9.99 per month ($7.99 for unlimited streaming content plus $2 for one DVD at a time); the new plan created two separate services, each $7.99 per month. The move generated a strong wave of consumer anger and a backlash that cost the company nearly a million subscribers.

But they’re still in business, too — having learned a valuable lesson about missteps, and corrective action. Many of the customers who initially fled began to return soon after the policy change was altered. By early 2012, Netflix regained most of the customers it had lost from its self-inflected wounds.  

The power of the Internet also came into full view for Bank of America when it sought to institute a new fee for debit cards. Opposition quickly went viral, including an online petition that received 300,000 signatures — and much media coverage — almost immediately. After initially defending the decision, in just over a month the second-largest U.S. lender by deposits abandoned plans for the $5 a month charge for debit cards amid the growing nationwide backlash from consumers (which was subsequently echoed by lawmakers).  

Certainly some reputational damage done, but the banking behemoth did not pay the ultimate price.

If the longer-term aftermath is handled well, even after the initial action or immediate crisis is handled badly, the ship can be righted. BP, Netflix and Bank of America are among the more recent, more highly publicized examples. But they are neither the first nor the last.  

Maintaining proper perspective is difficult during a crisis, but it is helpful.  Missteps will happen — at times, spectacularly. But recovery is possible, driven by sound decision-making and prompt, effective and sustained corrective action.

Remember hearing the admonition “Honesty is the best policy” from parents or teachers years ago? Absolutely true, then and now. Same for “Admit it when you’re wrong.”  People tend to appreciate an individual, as well as a corporation or organization, willing to admit a mistake and apologize, in deeds and words. Both are important — rhetoric need to be reflected in substantive actions. A dash of “The customer is always right” can be helpful as well.

Be prepared to re-evaluate past decisions quickly, and even reverse them when needed. Be ready to change course in response to changed circumstances. Be resilient and resourceful and responding to a firestorm, and draw on both instincts and advice.  

Resist the temptation to “keep digging” and instead set the shovel aside. We have seen repeated examples through history when the cover-up is worse than the crime (or the ramifications certainly are — see anything with a “gate” suffix).  

It’s all about what happens after what happened — when the urge to throw in the towel or add insult to injury must be superseded by a determination to pick up the pieces. Handled skillfully and candidly, Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.

 

Bernard L. Kavaler is founding principal of Express Strategies (express-strategies.com), a West Hartford-based strategic communications and public policy consulting business.  

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is running advertisements to persuade Americans to sign up for food stamps.

(We’ll pause a moment to allow you to reread that sentence.)

The ads, which can be heard locally on New York CBS-owned radio stations such as WCBS (880 AM), feature two (apparently) older African-American ladies, one of whom compliments the other on her healthy appearance. The latter confides that she uses food stamps to buy healthy foods “including fruits and vegetables.” Then the first woman reveals that she, too, also uses food stamps. They share a giggle.

When we heard these we hoped that they were free public-service announcements aired at the generosity of the stations, with no taxpayer dollars involved. No such luck.

We asked Hans Bilger of the USDA’s Food & Nutrition Service in Washington, D.C. He acknowledged that the ad agency Fleishman Hilliard created ten spots for the USDA, five for paid commercials and five for PSAs. (There are also TV spots that aired on Spanish-language stations only, Bilger told BNH.)

He said the department spends “approximately $2.5 [million] to $3 million a year” on radio ads for the program now known by the benign euphemism the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

This is so wrong.

We are now spending taxpayers’ money to get more people on the public dole? Really?

According to USDA figures from late last year, there were some 46 million Americans — almost 15 percent of the entire population — receiving food stamps. That’s an all-time high.

Are there really people who qualify for food stamps who don’t know they exist? Wouldn’t it behoove the government to run ads encouraging people to get off of government assistance?

That the government is using our money to persuade more Americans to jump onto the public dole offers powerful ammunition to those who argue that the current administration seeks to make more Americans dependent on, and indebted to, the party that currently controls the White House.