Episode Transcript – The Sin of Slow in Crisis Communications

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 52

Guest, Shawna Bruce, Bruce and Associates

Published May 2, 2021

Listen to this episode

Airline nat sound (00:02):

Come on.

Doug Downs (00:04):

The airline industry is one that definitely prepares for crises, but not this kind. In spring of 2017, after boarding a plane in Chicago, United Airlines announced it had overbooked the flight, but not enough passengers volunteered to give up their seats. United selected four passengers at random for removal. One of those was Dr. David Dow, whom police forced out of his seat and dragged him from the plane,

Airline nat sound (00:37):

Busted his lip.

Doug Downs (00:41):

You remember what happened? It was all captured on video by several passengers and broadcast on social media, one tweet receiving nearly 14,000 retweets in under 24 hours. United Airlines waited until the following day to issue its first statement, but by then it was already on the defensive today on stories and strategies, the sin of slow when it comes to crisis communications. My name is Doug Downs. My guest today is Shawna Bruce, joining us today from Sturgeon County, just west side of Edmonton, Alberta. Hi, Shawna.

Shawna Bruce (01:24):

Good morning, Doug.

Doug Downs (01:26):

Good morning. And Shawna, I always mention Edmonton’s River Valley whenever there’s a guest from Edmonton. Did you know it has trails connecting to Sturgeon County and the River Valley in the Edmonton area is 22 times bigger than New York’s Central Park?

Shawna Bruce (01:42):

We are so fortunate to have all this green space here in the Edmonton metropolitan region, and people are taking advantage of it During Covid. You see people out all the time with activities with their families. It’s amazing.

Doug Downs (01:54):

And as Spring settles in and the thaw is completely underway, it’s only going to get better from here. Shawna, we’re thrilled to have you on the podcast. I’ve been following you for quite some time. Hope that doesn’t sound creepy. You’re nationally and internationally known as an emergency management and crisis communications expert. That shingle went up on your credentials long before Covid. Academically, you have a master’s in disaster in emergency management from Royal Rhoads University here in Canada, and a BA in mass communication from Carleton University in Ontario. You started your career in the Army as a public affairs officer and advisor in the Canadian Armed Forces for 27 years, mainly in Winnipeg, Toronto, Edmonton, Southfield, which is here in Alberta, but also in the UK. And I know your roles had you reaching out largely to Army units across Ontario and Western Canada. You also teach emergency management at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, or NAIT you’re part of NAIT’s Emergency Management Diploma and support, the Center of Applied Disaster and Emergency Management Continuing Education certificate programs. Okay, really simple question. Looking for a simple answer, speed versus accuracy in a crisis. Which one of these two should I be focusing on?

Shawna Bruce (03:14):

You know what? It’s a challenging question, Doug, because I’m going to say you have to respond to both you. I honestly think you need to be responding to a crisis within 15 to 30 minutes. And clients tell me that’s crazy. Nobody can do that. But if you’re prepared with an effectively written and practice plan and you have a generic holding statement that’s ready to launch, that you can put out to your stakeholders, you can respond that quickly. So I’m going to say you have to respond, yes. And then with that speed be first, and then right behind it is your accuracy.

Doug Downs (03:48):

Okay. What about when the information could make the difference between life and death? Shouldn’t I be quicker in that instance?

Shawna Bruce (03:55):

Absolutely. You want to, first, you wanna get out there first, but you also need to be accurate. The holding statement, all that does is buy you a little bit of time and says, we have a crisis we’re investigating, and we’ll get you those details as soon as we can. But it’s us. You’re taking that accountability that’s so important in a crisis to be accountable and transparent but especially when you wanna establish yourself as that trusted source of information if you’re out there first, so that you’re starting to own your narrative and others aren’t owning it for you. But at the same time, as soon as you have that holding message out there, that role of your communications or your public information officer is to start gathering that information, verifying to make sure it’s accurate, coordinating with who has to know about it and then getting it out to the public.


But I’ll be honest, when I worked in a petrochemical company for Dow, they were pretty much hand in hand accuracy and speed. I was looking to access that get that public impact and get that information out to them as quickly as possible for our public alerts and social media platforms, because we always looked at it that if we over respond in support of public safety and there’s nothing there, it’s non-issue, the public will likely forgive us. We always wanted to err on the side of caution, but on the other side of that, they’re never going to forgive us if we’re too late with that life threatening and saving information that could impact the community in our residents.

Doug Downs (05:23):

Okay. Can I play devil’s advocate or in Canadian vernacular can I be a bugger for a second?

Shawna Bruce (05:29):


Doug Downs (05:30):

Okay. I get that public audiences are demanding immediate communication, and if the organization isn’t doing it and doing it quickly, somebody else is, and you lose the narrative. But at the end of the day, do I really need to respond so fast? You take United Airlines, who we talked about off the top here after that 2017 fiasco, and it was a fiasco. Their stock dropped 4% for a little while, but then within a month, their stock price actually hit a record high. It was up 10%. I mean, so much for the PR disaster

Shawna Bruce (06:05):

That this is an interesting case study, Doug, that we were using at NAIT actually in one of our courses. And you’re right, United Airlines is a company as a company, it’s still intact, but the reputation is damaged due to their poor crisis management of that event. And how do you put a price on your reputation after that event? We saw that United Continental Holdings market value acted about a billion dollars after that second apology from their president Manos. We saw that the market went down slightly, and it still was still down a few months back about six months ago, about 250 million. I mean, that’s a pretty significant impact in this economy and in the terms of customer relations. That event had destroyed United’s brand reputation and relationship with China because of the individual, Mr. Dow, who was involved, where they derived almost 2 billion in revenue. So we can talk about it still being in the stock market. We can talk about those things, but I would offer you that when that event went viral the way it did, they were in crisis mode and yet they took their time to reply and it cost them on their reputation front.

Doug Downs (07:18):

I happened to be in Toronto on work related things, but I think it was about six months after the event. And you get in one of these travel vans that takes you to the, I dunno if it was a rental car place or to my hotel. And then as I got on, sat at the back and then On come airline people and they’re dressed in their fancy airline suits, I suppose I’m going to use the term stewards and stewardesses, but obviously pilots and co-pilots as well look great. And I couldn’t tell where they were from. And we got into a conversation. I said, well, what airline are you with it? Oh, we’re with United. And that was a good six months after. And I had that little sly cocky grin that I can get at times. And the poor, I think it was the pilot he had to launch into not a defensive thing, but yeah, I know it hasn’t been great. So this has impact on internal relations as well, and that’s purely anecdotal what I’m sharing here,

Shawna Bruce (08:16):

But absolutely. I mean, your employees are such a key integral audience in a crisis. And in this case, what I found was really interesting was the first message that the president sent out was internal, which is great to his employees, but he was actually supporting the actions of those security personnel. He was calling the passenger disruptive and belligerent and probably did not either. A, he hadn’t viewed that video or B, he was just poorly briefed by his staff who should be fired after that. And they disregarded the impacts that this was having on their brand and their reputation and on other passengers. So nobody wants to work for a company whose reputation’s in the toilet are that people think of that. I mean, friends, I’m sure those, all of those employees had comments from friends on their personal Facebook feeds, et cetera. And now you don’t wanna be in that space.

Doug Downs (09:08):

And you talk about differentiating early on between an issue and a crisis in the spirit of prescription before diagnosis is malpractice. How can I make that differentiation when the bubblegum has hit the fan and my CEO is red in the face, the board chair is on the phone trying to reach the C E O. How do I tell my CEO? Calm down. It’s just an issue, don’t worry.

Shawna Bruce (09:34):

Well, I think the first thing you have to remember is that an issue is a warning signal. It’s like something on your car going off your alternator’s going or something, that red light comes on an issue is a chance for you through social listening to identify challenges that could blow up into that crisis. Did something happen somewhere that could happen to us? I’m thinking of recent events or this we had seen this past year with the holidays of politicians over in places outside of Canada during Covid, right? We saw this start to unfold in Ontario, yet we waited in Alberta to respond. That was an issue. Someone should have been saying, huh? Where were our people over the holidays? We should look into that because the public wasn’t happy. Here are you checking in with your customer service people routinely, they hear a lot, right?


They can start, if they’ve got four or five people commenting about a same situation, you’ve got an issue. Who are your key influencers in the company? If their employees, employees aren’t happy with something, community Facebook pages, all of these places give you a chance to go and do some. So employ some social listening. And you look at those issues as an opportunity to talk through the challenge as a team and create a response plan. So you wanna be proactive to enable your team to be reactive. So lots of time can be spent in managing issues, exercises, and communications that are created that are never used. And when we talk about that issue versus a crisis, Doug, we have to also remember that you can actually create your own crisis by over responding to an issue and airing all of your dirty laundry. And then the public is kind of wondering what you’re talking about because they didn’t see it as an issue at all.


We know that that reputation is a big deal. And if there’s only one thing that a business takes away from a PR crisis, it should be that your reputation really does matter. And that digital age with social media has changed how customers view businesses because anyone can get the details about everything about you in a matter of a second or a Google search. So it’s important to put your energy into the situation, not placing blame and making sure that your actions mean something, right, that you’re talking the talk and then you’re walking the walk by doing what you said you were going to do. And also, I’d like to remind some of my clients that not every criticism is an attack on you. There’s this delicate balance when you defend your business against a criticism and knowing when to accept and grow from it. Criticism can actually be a lever to better success or marketing for your community.


And I think really, if I leave it with this, a classic example of that would be how the fast food industry responded. When that film supersized me was released more than a decade ago, and that industry as a whole came under attack from promoting unhealthy eating habits and promoting and furthering obesity across North America and declining health concerns came to the forefront. And McDonald’s, they actually responded. They took the criticism and turned it into an opportunity, which with every crisis, there truly is an opportunity to actually come out ahead of it and improve your reputation depending on how you respond.

Doug Downs (12:52):

Hollywood usually covers the PR practice pretty accurately, wouldn’t you say <laugh>? In the 2015 Warner Brothers movie, Our Brand is Crisis, Sandra Bullock plays the role of a political strategy genius hired as a consultant to help a presidential candidate in Bolivia who is not very well liked in his home country. In this scene, Bullock is setting the tone for a nasty campaign strategy.

Male Actor (13:17):

For the sake of argument, Castillo is considered arrogant, unapproachable, and out of touch with people’s lives. So what would you have done differently, Jane?

Sandra Bullock (13:26):

Well, a man’s strengths flow from the same well as his weaknesses. Okay? You don’t change the man fit the narrative. You changed the narrative to fit the man. Okay, that’s excellent. Thank you.

Male Actor Two (13:39):

How did the Narrative fit a man?

Sandra Bullock (13:40):

Just take it in a minute. Wait. Exactly. People forget what you say, but they remember how you make them feel. Warren Beatty, right now you make people feel like you’re going to shoot them. People don’t like you, but that’s okay. Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved. It’s Warren Beatty as well.


It’s not. It’s Machiavelli. Sorry, I was just totally kidding. Fear. Let’s talk about fear. The most effective political spot ever made. Daisy pretty much won the election for Johnson. And it was shown once, basically this ad suggested that if Goldwater got in instead of Johnson, the crazy bastard would unleash a nuclear holocaust, which is blow up the world. So now this became a choice between saving the world and dying. You see, when voters are looking for hope, they always go for the new guy. But when they’re scared, they look for a wartime leader. They look for a guy who, when you come at him with an egg, he doesn’t have time for fun and games. No, he’s going to put you down and he’s going to punch you in the face. So let me tell you what our little movie is going to be about.


Our story is Bolivia is facing the worst period in its turbulent history. We are at a crossroads and bolivia’s face a choice. They have Rivera, a man of no substance, a man of no experience, and every man opportunist who will stand by and watch as this nation falls apart. Or they can choose Castile. You might not like him. You might think he’s an arrogant son of a bitch, but he is a fighter. He has grit, he has experience, and he’s got balls. And he is the only choice, the only choice to save the day. These are the stakes we are trying to save people’s lives, but this is no longer an election. This is a crisis. And our brand, what we are selling crisis.

Shawna Bruce (16:02):

I love Sandra Bullock, she’s amazing. And when I’ve watched that, I’ve seen that movie. And the other one that I love that kind of offers the same kind of thing is Carrie Washington in Scandal, Netflix, the Scandal. And that’s all about government and issues management and framing the message for the voter. And I think this is interesting because when you ask me, is this a crisis? I’m going to say to you, I think they’re creating a political crisis here. I they’re pitting the known against the unknown to create that narrative that’ll resonate with their voters. But it’s not really crisis communications, is it? I mean, there’s no honesty or authenticity here. There’s no transparency or accountability here with the voters. It’s all smoke and mirrors, baby. And I think in a crisis sometimes you do need to work on that narrative with your spokespersons or your leaders, cuz you need to humanize them so that their audiences can relate to what they’re saying. I think if you thought for a second and you compared Michael McCain with the famous, probably it’s, I know we still use it as a case study today cuz it’s one of the few examples of where a leader’s done this well with that mindful communication compared to the C E O, Tony Hayward from BP, who was the human in that the one that you recognized or could relate to was Michael McCain

Doug Downs (17:23):

From Maple Leaf Foods.

Shawna Bruce (17:25):


Doug Downs (17:26):

Canadian example. Yeah,

Shawna Bruce (17:27):

Canadian. Yeah. A great Canadian. And what they demonstrated accountability, they were transparent and what they were doing to respond to the crisis. And today, McCain’s Foods is the leader of protein-based products in the world. So they bounce back. Then we talk about the CEO of BP and they shoved him off to Russia. Tony Hayward. Yeah, Tony Hayward. Yeah, absolutely.

Doug Downs (17:50):

What’s he doing now?

Shawna Bruce (17:52):

Well, well, it’s interesting because I do believe he’s with GlenCor on the mining front. And I believe ironically, he is the chair of the Ethics Compliance Culture and Investigations Committee and member of the Health Safety Environment and Communities Committee with GlenCor. So he’s reinvented himself, but I really hope he’s learned something along the way. Well,

Doug Downs (18:14):

He has the experience. Last question. Many PR firms and consultants say they do crisis communications. Boy, when Covid broke out, seemed like every PR friend that I had had a shingle that said, oh, crisis comes 20 years. But really what they offer is publicity and public relations after an event in an attempt to repair the damaged reputation of an organization or brand. You, I know Shawna have dedicated your career to crisis. If someone needs to hire a crisis communications expert, a real one, how do they differentiate between the real expert and the PR snake oil salesperson who’s gussied up their experience to make it look like they have focused on crisis?

Shawna Bruce (18:58):

That’s a really interesting question because I had some friends or colleagues I’ll call colleagues through social media and people that I converse with all the time that had done exactly the same thing. And there was this little part of me that was like, huh, when I saw that shingle change, and I thought, really, what are value are you bringing to the crisis conversation for a client? And I recognize that Covid has been interesting and just like everyone else, organizations and consultants have had to pivot and adopt. And some of them may have gone and got some training to be able to work with their clients better in that space. And I didn’t really start my career in crisis. It just was the road that I seem to be on in this space in every job from issues in crisis in the military to when I worked at Dow.


And that’s kind of the difference there is I think when you’re looking to hire someone in this space, what I would tell folks is look at their social media platforms and see what they’re writing about. And if their posts and responses align with your values as an organization or a company, check out their blogs and read through them to see if they’re writing from a place of knowledge and experience or they simply sharing the work of others. So are they a true voice in this space or are they just an echo? And if it’s the latter, are they adding to the conversation? Are they just repeating the sentiments that are out there? I also think that it’s absolutely imperative that you ask for references from past clients before you take on someone to manage a crisis reputation management after a crisis or during a crisis event, you have one shot to get that right.


And you wanna make sure that the person you’re working with gets your values, has values of their own, has integrity, and has that experience in training to get you through it. I think it’s often hard for those in my space to talk sometimes about the work we do with our clients, but I often ask clients after training sessions, for example, if I need a testimonial, would they be willing to provide me one? And I include them on my website just so that people can see that I bring some experience to the conversation and I’m the real deal at the end of the day. I’m always trying to combine that academic with the practical. What tips are they taking away? I want them to leave, be able to employ something like right away in their job or their role. So at the end of the day, you have to do a little bit of homework to make sure you bring in the right person to help your organization. I think where I’d leave it.

Doug Downs (21:30):

Perfect. Glad we were able to get together today. Shawna,

Shawna Bruce (21:34):

I’m thrilled to have this chance to chat with you, Doug. I love all your podcasts. You bring on some great speakers, and I’m just very honored that you’d select me as one of them here in 2021.

Doug Downs (21:43):

We’ve added another fabulous speaker here. Thanks. Have a great day.

Shawna Bruce (21:47):

You have a great day too. And stay safe out there.

Doug Downs (21:50):

If you’d like to send a message to my guest, Shawna Bruce, you can email her at Bruce and Associates ltd gmail.com. It’s in the show notes. She may or may not respond quickly. If you liked what you heard today, we’re hoping you choose to subscribe to stories and strategies and receive updated episodes automatically. We’d also love it if you followed us on Twitter. It’s at coms underscore podcast. Also hoping you choose to follow and rate this podcast on any directory. And could you do us a favor? Recommend this podcast to one friend. If you have an idea for an episode or just wanna tell us something, send us a note at info@storiesandstrategies.ca

Thanks for listening.