“Tell him that it was an unfortunate error, that you’re doing everything you can to fix it, and that you’re sorry.”
If you’ve seen much of The Office, you know that the mostly inept staff at Dunder Mifflin faces a crisis in nearly every episode. If you haven’t seen The Office, what exactly do you watch on Netflix? With all the crises they face, there’s one episode in particular where the show truly illustrates a crisis response that we can learn from in the public relations world: Season 3, Episode 20, “Product Recall.”
In this episode, a disgruntled employee at the paper mill puts an obscene watermark on Dunder Mifflin paper, causing all kinds of problems. A local high school even puts their prom invitations on the paper. Yikes. But the writers of The Office must know a little bit about PR and crisis communication, because there are some good lessons hidden in the hijinks of the episode.
1. Be compassionate, not defensive.
“It wasn’t me. They’re trying to make me an escape goat.”
When a crisis happens, it’s natural for a company or spokesperson to get defensive. They love their company, and they’re trying to protect themselves and their employees. But in situations like this, you must remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the customer. It’s powerful for the customer and the public to know that you truly care and that you understand their pain. At EPIC, we educate our clients on how to interact with the media, stressing that the audience comes first. Connecting with them on a personal level is how to begin rebuilding the bridge.
Michael Scott doesn’t do this in his “apology video,” and Angela definitely doesn’t do this with her customer service. She went with the classic “The company has already apologized, so you can take the apology or not.” Facepalm.
2. Get out in front of the story.
“No, Pam. The press is just going to find out about it themselves… NOT!”
It’s actually a good move for Michael to schedule a press conference to address the watermark fiasco. If you know that people are talking about your crisis, the best plan of action is to be transparent, open a line of communication, and make a statement. At EPIC, we determine how to do this through a custom crisis-communication flowchart. It helps us identify when to speak, who should speak, and how we get the message out to people.
In Michael’s case, his intentions were pretty good with the press conference. He invited a client and prepared a statement, a photo op, and even a giant check. However, it didn’t go as planned and he unraveled. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.
3. Meet with the affected customers in person.
“No no no, not good enough. This is a keystone account. I want you in the school, in person.”
Michael makes an excellent decision advising Jim to go and visit with one of the “victims” of the watermark in person, rather than just calling them. Joined by Andy—who is in for a surprise—Jim goes to the school to meet with the principal and talk about what happened. The important thing here is that although Jim and Andy can’t really do anything to fix the problem, they’re present and they listen to the principal.
When we’re facing backlash from a crisis for one of our clients, often times the best thing we can do is be present and listen. We see it all the time on social media at EPIC; people’s moods change instantly for the better when they know that a real person is listening to them. Jim and Andy’s presence at the school shows that they care, and it shows that Andy needs to make some better relationship decisions.
4. Don’t expect 100% forgiveness.
“I do not accept. The watermark was obscene and horrifying.”
“Well, we are very sorry.”
Michael’s fatal mental mistake during his well-meaning press conference was assuming that all was going to be forgiven. He offered a hilariously lopsided penance of “6 months of free paper, or 25 reams, whichever comes first,” and then expects full acceptance. Understandably, the customer balks.
In public relations—and also in life—it’s unrealistic to expect that everything will go back to normal soon after a crisis. We can’t go back in time to fix what happened. All we can do is answer these three questions:
- What do you stand for?
- What are you doing to remedy the situation?
- What are you doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
The damage often times is irreversible, but you can make changes to assure that you’re a better company afterwards. You can ensure quality, make staffing changes, or give people their money back. They may not always forgive you right away, but if you’re truly committed to being better and making it right in the long term, that’s what matters.
5. Don’t panic.
“Then Newsweek picks it up, and then CNN does a story about it, and then YouTube gets ahold of it…”
Above all else, stay calm. You certainly need to take the situation seriously, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to panic. The best thing you can do is to be honest and true to yourself and your company. If you’re sure that you’ve done all you can, then move on and only address the crisis when necessary. After the botched press conference, Michael gets anxious and takes matters into his own hands in the form of his ridiculous apology video.
While we can’t be prepared for everything, we at EPIC develop crisis-communication plans for our clients, taking into account all kinds of potential crises. This way, almost nothing will be a surprise. While Dunder Mifflin didn’t do everything terribly, they probably should have called EPIC Creative. We could have helped, and we can help you too.