Maria Bailey – A Case Study in How Businesses Should NOT React in Crisis

In business, politics and life in general, sometimes it’s important to ‘stop swinging’, hold your hands up and follow a few simple steps when you face a crisis of character. Any business, at one point, will likely face some sort of a public relations crisis and the way you respond this can either give you a much-needed image boost or significantly damage your brand. If you want an example of how you should not react in a crisis, simply listen to Maria Baileys car crash interview on the Sean O’Rourke Show below.

’I am not going to bow down to keyboard warriors and bullies.

I am a strong female politician and some people don’t like that and I will not bow down

I am a strong female politician and some people don’t like that and I will not bow down”

The last few weeks have been a bit of a nightmare for the Fine Gael TD who has faced massive backlash from the public over her personal injury claim against The Dean Hotel, which has subsequently been withdrawn.

Ms Bailey’s swinging skills were no match for the shift in balance caused by reaching for a bottle of wine with one hand and holding a glass in the other while sitting on a plank of wood suspended by two ropes. Most rational people would think a fall under these circumstances would be one’s own fault, but on this occasion, Ms Bailey thought differently and decided to make a claim against the hotel for negligence.

This simple act caused a major PR Crisis, not only for Maria Bailey but also for the wider Fine Gael Party in the middle of important local elections. There were PR mistakes made at every stage but possibly the biggest of all was in the aftermath of it becoming public knowledge and how it was handled in the media.

In today’s blog we take a look at how businesses can avoid crisis where possible and show you how to (and how not to) handle them if and when they do occur.

What is a PR Crisis?

A PR crisis occurs when an unexpected problem puts the stability of a company or organisation at risk. These dilemmas can either originate internally or they can be brought on by external influences. The problem affecting the business escalates to the point where it’s out of the company’s control and they can’t resolve it. If left unaddressed, this issue may permanently damage the business or cause it to fail.

We tell clients that a PR crisis is:

  • Anything that can damage the reputation of your organisation
  • Anything that can cause a loss of trust
  • Any risk to the health, lives or safety of staff, clients, patients, providers, or other stakeholders

In this case, the crisis for Fine Gael was that information was leaked in advance of European and Local Elections that one of its representatives was acting in a manner that directly conflicted with a recent campaign to fast track legislation to prevent compo culture in Ireland. The leak caused a massive storm across all forms of media and resulted in reputational damage to the party as a whole.

“If the Government is serious about driving down the claims culture, we cannot stand idly by when adults lose their seat with two objects, one in each hand and fall off a swing and then claim that there should have been a supervisor looking after them.”

Former Justic Minister, Micheal McDowell
Crisis Management

What Types of Crisis Could Your Business Face?

Financial Crisis

A financial crisis occurs when a business loses value in its assets and the company can’t afford to pay off its debt.

This can be caused by internal mishandling of the business finances or external factors like the 2008 property market crash and subsequent recession.

Personnel Crisis

Personnel crises occur when an employee or individual who’s associated with the company is involved in unethical or illegal misconduct either in the workplace or in their personal life.

This is where the Maria Bailey case falls under. Her case against The Dean Hotel severely undermined her own personal brand and that of the Fine Gael party as a whole.

Crisis Management

Organisational Crisis

Organisational crises are situations where the company has significantly wronged its consumers. Rather than creating mutually beneficial relationships, these businesses used their customers as a means of benefiting the company.

An example of this is the recent Tracker Mortgage Scandal where banks pressured customers to move from their tracker interest rate to a higher fixed rate resulting people ended up, in many cases, paying hundreds of euro more than they had to on a monthly basis to service their mortgages. This caused extensive financial strain being unnecessarily put on people, with a number of people having their homes repossessed.

The banks already dodgy reputations were damaged even further as the media rightly hit them with a barrage of criticism.

Technological Crisis

A technological crisis can occur for multiple reasons and are all too common in the modern age. These can be a result of site hacking, crashes, data breaches and more.

This could be seen only recently when the Luas website got hacked and held to ransom for one Bitcoin. The hacker threatened to release all data is the fee was not paid. Not ideal in an age of GDPR regulation.

Competitive Crisis

In business a single action by a competitor can leave your company or brand vulnerable to a crisis situation. There are a number of tactics used by businesses to undermine and damage their competitors, some of which are more ethical than others.

I’m sure we all remember the day when Instagram added the Stories feature to its interface? Can you imagine the panic in Snapchat that day and the subsequent weeks? That was one hell of a competitive crisis.

Crisis Management

Confrontational Crisis

This occurs when stakeholders within your business ecosystem get into disputes or disagreements with each other that will have a detrimental effect on the company or its reputation.

The recent nurses strike brought swathes of public support and damaged the reputation of the government and HSE as people felt it was justified. Compare this to the reaction the Luas driver got, and it is chalk and cheese, but both are still a crisis of conflict.

Crisis Management

How to a Crisis That Needs to be Managed?

You might be saying, the best way to avoid any crisis is not to do anything stupid, but as businesses get bigger there are so many stakeholders at play and so many variables that this can become difficult.

If you want to give yourself the best chance however, then follow these simple steps:

1. Research & Learn – Take a look back at every crisis that has occurred within your industry over the last 100 years and see what you can learn from them. In general, there are only a finite number of different variables at play here so it will allow you to anticipate what could happen and plan accordingly

2. Always Assume It Will Go Public – Everything you do, every decision you make and every message you send, assume they will become public. They may not, but it’s best to assume they will and if you think it will affect your business then don’t do it.

3. Be Open & Transparent – If you are open and transparent in all you dealings throughout your company lifespan it is much harder for anyone to go back and criticise you on the basis of past decision than it would be if you tried to keep them quiet.

4. Get Ahead of the Message – If you see a potential crisis coming down the line, get out in front of it with a statement explaining what happened which will allow you to control the initial narrative.

5. Plan for the Worst – Always have a crisis management plan in place for any situation that may arise before it actually does. It’s too late if you are only planning your response after the event has occurred.

6. Educate – It is important to educate all of the stakeholders in your business on how they should behave and the standards they must uphold as to avoid any potential issues down the line.

Crisis Management

Most Importantly, how do you React?

In that astonishing appearance on RTÉ’s ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke, Maria Bailey criticised the reporting of the case and attempted to justify her action against the hotel.

She described the media as “judge, jury and executioner”, claimed her privacy had been invaded and that “humanity has been crossed” as she blamed everyone else other than herself when responding to the widespread criticism.

Hmmm blame the media? The very people who will be communicating the message to the public. Does that sound like a good first step? It does not…

It might seem surprising to you that somebody with all the possible resources needed at her disposal would behave in such a way on the public airwaves but that’s the thing about crises, they make rational people react in irrational ways.

The first step is always to take a deep breath, relax and try to think as clearly as possible, but after that try the following steps. Have a read through and notice how Ms Bailey appears to have done the exact opposite.

Stop Swinging:

The first rule of crisis management, surprisingly, is to stop fighting, take a step back, put yourself in the public’s shoes and ask, ‘’What would I think if someone else did this?’’. Looking in the mirror and taking a critical view of yourself is infinitely more powerful than any excuse you could make up.

The exact opposite:

‘’I am the subject of click bait’’

‘’I will not be bullied’’

Take Responsibility

First off, don’t try to cover up the PR crisis, it will only worsen the damage. Instead, manage the situation by taking responsibility, reacting immediately, and responding to feedback by writing a press release, post on social media, or make a video message.

The exact opposite:

‘’This has been a hugely distressing, intrusive, abusive week that my family and I have succumbed to, completely unwarranted, through leaked documents’’

Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions

Companies, brand representatives or influencers often provide emotional, frenzied responses. Going silent on social is not a bad thing when you are monitoring a crisis. Freeze all external communication until you can assess what’s going on. Be sure that the first external communication following the crisis is a well-thought-out response that resonates with the public.

The exact opposite:

Go on a national radio show, seemingly unprepared, ill advised, and blame everybody but yourself

Be Proactive, Be Transparent, Be Accountable

Sometime mistakes happen and it is important not to let them ruin your reputation. In order to avoid further damage you must acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologise.

The exact opposite:

Claim that you were unable to run but then appear on social media completing a 10k.

Be Ready for Social Media Backlash

Even if you are not marketing yourself or your business on social media, don’t ignore the possibility of it blowing up with negativity around your brand. Have a plan and act accordingly.

The exact opposite:

‘‘I am so passionate about my job I am not bowing down to keyboard warriors and bullies.’’

Remember to Be Human

Don’t be a robot reading a script and say ‘’you’ll look into it’’ as this will do nothing for your brand. We are all humans and we all recognise that mistakes happen so tell your customers how this mistake has made you feel, apologise and then communicate the steps you are taking to avoid it happening again.

The exact opposite:

‘’Sean, I did nothing wrong, I am fully entitled, if I was injured, to bring a legitimate case.’’

Monitor, Plan and Communicate

Keep an eye on social media and monitor spikes of negativity or increased activity, utilise an already well-versed crisis plan to proactively respond with prepared materials. Never let employees go rogue, encourage them to apologise immediately with predetermined and approved key messages.

The exact opposite:

‘’What I and my family have been subjected to is incredible, the distress, the abuse, I had to come off all social media.’’

Take Advice

It’s too easy to be reactive, especially when your company’s brand and reputation are at stake. In any situation, there is normally somebody who has been through it before and can help. Seek them out and ask for their advice.

The exact opposite:

Go on the national airwaves and do the opposite of what any well-versed PR professional would tell you to do.

This piece is not a vilification or a damnation of Maria Bailey as a person. We accept that everyone makes mistakes and life can be a series of swings and roundabouts, but we do see the value in utilising this case as a learning tool on what not to do if you find yourself or your business embroiled in controversy.

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