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Crisis Management in the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Peter Melan
August 12, 2019

There are a thousand ways to deal with a crisis. Consultants and public relations agencies are trained to communicate about the incident and provide the appropriate updates. What happens when we are unable to retain those outside agencies and rely on the highest elected official to release information? In a world where information is sent out in a 140-character tweet that is picked up by followers or a Facebook post that is shared instantaneously, the amount of time the information takes to post could be minutes and may already be late.

In 1982, Tylenol experienced a major crisis that is used as a teaching example today. The case was presented as an assignment in graduate school that displayed a tremendous amount of transparency. The story behind the crisis surrounds several instances of cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol. At the time this incident occurred, several theories evolved about tampering, ranging from a disgruntled worker to someone taking the product off the shelves, injecting cyanide and replacing that same bottle on the shelf.

The subsequent actions taken by the CEO were both brave and dangerous. There were no attempts to hide, deflect or even lay blame on anyone except for Tylenol. Against the advice of legal counsel, the CEO made no effort to deceive anyone and held himself accountable, a trait not widely accepted by a large number of executives.

When the incident occurred, there was no Facebook, Twitter or any other social media platform. There were traditional methods of communicating, such as newspapers and news networks. There was time to form a cohesive message without the hustle everyone feels is necessary today; however, the honesty and willingness to accept responsibility paid off. The new bottles of Tylenol contained tamper-proof lids, vouchers were available to consumers and the brand image did not sustain permanent damage to their reputation. Their market share increased as a result of their openness and quick response to the crisis.

To name a few crises that have occurred lately; there was the Flint, Michigan water issue, the food poisoning at Chipotle and the Roseann Barr tweet. Although these crises are distinct in that they are categorically different, the reactions have predominately been lackluster. Who is the person or medication to blame? In the case of Roseann Barr, a racist tweet was sent out and immediately deleted. The cause was Ambien, which garnered a somewhat comical response from its manufacturer that, “Although there are side effects, racism is not one.” The overwhelming negative publicity from a tweet and an unusual response clearly showed any regard for being truthful about the incident.

In the public sector, there seems to be a fundamental lack of communication and truthfulness when it comes to dealing with a crisis. What further exacerbates the crisis is a lack of credible information disseminated from the person in charge. Social media has transformed the way we receive information, which leaves very little room for error. Elected officials are not willing to accept responsibility and are quick to pass the blame onto someone else or deny any guilt in the matter. As a matter of record, the citizens depend on their officials for accurate information that is timely and most importantly, truthful.

In May of 2018, Lafayette College had received a threat via Twitter that there were pipe bombs, pressure cookers and nail bombs placed throughout the campus. Local and federal law enforcement quickly mobilized as the threat was unable to be confirmed. They began a room-by-room search of the entire campus. The college had communicated this threat to their students and faculty; however, the news quickly spread throughout the neighborhood. As someone who resides four blocks from the campus, and as the search continued, constituents and neighbors began to ask for updates via phone calls and text messages regarding the status of the threat. The City provided no official communication, and the crisis quickly worsened. As the liaison overseeing public safety on City Council, this was highly problematic.

As an elected official with a background in public safety, the decisions made by the City to not release information seemed careless and reckless. The fundamental need to communicate with residents, even if the information is elementary, yields a sense of comfort and confidence. Doing nothing in a crisis results in residents becoming frustrated, increases hysteria and creates a lack of trust that is unnecessary.

One lesson to learn when it comes to a crisis is to leave the professionals alone as they perform their duties. A simple communication from the highest elected official or Chief of Police can quickly reassure a city and its residents that their primary focus is to ensure all who are involved remain safe from the threat. When that line of communication fails, the situation quickly sours into a broader crisis. In a time where information spreads in a matter of seconds, it is best to lead the information as opposed to playing catch-up with constituents. The Tylenol case should be a teaching experience 37 years later.


Author: Peter Melan is an at-large councilperson in the City of Easton, PA and the chair of public safety. He is in his first year of graduate studies in Public Administration at Ohio University. Peter is known for his creativity in solving problems using non-traditional methods, and for his experience in project management and data analytics.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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