RIM & crisis comms

When disaster strikes, when mistakes happen, what’s the best corporate response? Well, to respond, for starters.

Not to pretend nobody’s noticed.

Last week, as you are certainly aware, was The Great Berry Crash of 2011, and plenty of folks noticed. Across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, millions of us peered at our inert BlackBerry screens for day after interminable day, cursing.

Cursing one of the all-time Canadian business success stories, BlackBerry’s Research in Motion (RIM).  Cursing the company’s near-total silence about a system-wide collapse that inconvenienced — or hurt — countless businesses and individuals around the globe.

No e-mails. No instant messaging. No web browsing. For days, our BlackBerrys were great big digital clocks, and nothing more. An apology (of sorts) came from one of RIM’s bosses only after four days of corporate silence. It was beyond maddening — it was pathetic.

Technological failures happen, and a big one certainly happened to RIM. That’s forgivable (maybe). What isn’t forgivable is RIM’s ongoing inability to promptly take responsibility for its mistakes, and to level with those of us who depend on it to provide a reliable service.

What isn’t forgivable is the failure of RIM — a communications company! — to effectively communicate with its 70 million customers. In just this year alone, RIM has lost more than 60% of its value.

Its entry into the tablet market, the PlayBook, is ridiculed more widely than it is used. RIM’s executives have fled to other tech companies. And the BlackBerry — a technological icon and source of Canadian pride since 1999 — has lost too many users to its surging rivals in the smartphone market, iPhone and Android.

But what makes a bad situation far worse is RIM’s hear-nothing, say-nothing, do-nothing approach to communications.

As the technology correspondent for Britain’s The Telegraph wrote this week: “It’s hard to over-emphasize how bad the firm has been at keeping ordinary users informed. I have never known any company — let alone a worldwide brand with more than 70 million users — fail so comprehensively over such a long period.”

What should they have done differently?  Plenty. At my firm, when corporate disaster strikes, we often refer clients to the Tylenol approach. (And no, I don’t mean popping a few headache pills, although that probably doesn’t hurt).

Late 1982, Chicago: Seven people are killed when they ingest Tylenols laced with potassium cyanide. Johnson and Johnson, which owned the Tylenol brand, saw its share price plummet, and panic was widespread. But the company, unlike RIM, didn’t disappear. It did the reverse. Johnson and Johnson immediately recalled all Tylenol, nationwide. It ceased production. It issued warnings to hospitals. It announced it was developing what it called “tamper proof” packaging — a phrase that has now entered the popular lexicon.

And, over and over, company executives made themselves available to the media, to answer questions, to describe the actions it was taking and, most of all, to take responsibility.

The company’s willingness to be accountable, and to answer every question, generated tons of goodwill. As the Washington Post wrote at the time: “Johnson and Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.”

For RIM, there’s a lesson there. In politics, as in life, the communications rule is: What gets you in trouble isn’t the mistake. What gets you in trouble is pretending the mistake didn’t happen. And saying nothing. Like RIM did.

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