Anyone working in the tech space (or who has a healthy interest in consumer technology) will know that this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has come and gone. Tech companies – as well as their marketing and PR teams – spent months planning for this event, perfecting speeches, product demos and more. However, that doesn’t mean things always go to plan.

Unfortunately for Faraday Future, company executives were left red-faced when the demo failed on stage. The Tesla competitor was introducing its self-driving car, the FF91, but when instructed to self-park on stage, the vehicle didn’t move an inch. Watch the video below, and you’ll no doubt be cringing hard.

These things happen – and actually most of the media scrutiny wasn’t about the failure on stage but about Faraday Future’s reaction. The company opted to play it down but this was perceived as sweeping the issue under the rug, rather than face the issue head on. The result? A backlash of coverage and social posts which attacked the brand.  So, what went wrong?

Don’t launch until you’re truly ready

Freakonomics aired an episode ‘Failure is your friend’ that covered the concept of “go fever”, the phenomena of how when a boss gets “go fever” it can be tough to focus on potential failures thanks to internal politics, momentum, and personal egos.

The most devastating example of “go fever” was the 1986 Challenger launch by NASA. In January 1986, engineers recommended the launch be postponed for the third time due to potential failures that may occur in the motors because of the cold air. But despite the clear risks NASA decided to proceed with the launch.

The space shuttle failed and broke apart a mere 73 seconds into its flight, taking down with it all seven crew members, including a civilian teacher – the tragedy scarred NASA’s reputation for years.

In planning for any kind of launch, do not ignore the warning signs, rather you should scope them out and resolve any issues early on. They won’t fix themselves. You also must test, test and test again so you can be confident in your product. Whether it’s a vehicle that is responsible for people’s safety or not, if your product doesn’t do what it says on the box your brand will be tarnished.

This can be easier said than done though, particularly when time and money pressures weigh in. So, how can this be done in a practical way?

Do the pre-mortem

Cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein, suggests what’s called a pre-mortem method. It involves team members coming together and writing down reasons your project might ultimately fail, and compiling a catalogue of these issues before they cause damage. Each person in the team is then asked to think of one thing they could do to help or fix these issues, which will (hopefully) minimise the chances of failure in the end. We referenced this technique in a previous post on dealing with uncertainty which includes more tips on planning.

When things still go wrong

The pre-mortem technique is an excellent way to plan ahead, but – of course – no amount of planning can prevent things out of your control from going wrong, and that’s why a crisis communications strategy is also critical. At the time of writing this piece, Faraday Future has yet to publicly acknowledge the error on their website or social feeds, despite the public’s demand for answers on the CES failure and the potential safety failures of the vehicle.

People will be critical when mistakes or a crisis occurs, and pretending it didn’t happen will only make it worse. If a crisis situation occurs you must immediately prepare statements, social media posts and responses to address the issue and reassure your potential customers and stakeholders of your brand’s integrity. It’s not uncommon to have templates for common possible issues ready for adaptation at any moment. For example, Uber may have template statements ready around sensitive topics like driver misconduct.

These crisis communications statements need to also appease your investors, if relevant. On-stage glitches don’t inspire confidence in your product, and you need to keep your financial backers (or potential investors) on side.

Stay true to your brand

Above all, it’s also important nowadays to ‘stick by your guns’ and stay true to your company values, rather than try to be something your company is not for the sake of a trend.

It can also be confusing for consumers if a well-known brand starts trying to be something it’s not, and another product making headlines at CES was L’Oreal’s smart hairbrush. Most people think make up, skincare or hair dye when thinking of L’Oreal, so this move into IoT is a little unprecedented and could have an impact on the brand depending how people interpret it. That said, it’s mainly been a positive reception so far, winning the International CES Innovation Award at the show.

Plan for failure

There is no such thing as being “over-prepared”, and doing so can be the difference between a successful launch or black mark on your company’s brand. While Nick Sampson and YT Jia moved on to YT Jia’s speech fairly quickly after the incident and did eventually demonstrate the self-park successfully, a quick search of the media shows some less than favourable headlines in national media, such as The Sun and Daily Mail, and plenty of other global sources. The best solution? Plan for failure, so you can avoid a Faraday Future.

Ah yes, the PR crisis. The bane (or thrill?) of every communications professional’s career.

Facing a PR crisis can be quite a daunting time, especially when you don’t know what to expect. Often, the most important question you will face is how to react appropriately to contain a crisis. Do you go on a full-blown counter-offensive or keep your head down and assume that whatever’s going on will blow over imminently?

Judgement is crucial here: when does an issue become a communication crisis and what should you do about it?

Evaluate a potential PR crisis by asking yourself some quick questions:

  1. Can we keep the crisis to a minimum if we take no action at all?
  2. Can it be contained internally?
  3. Will it affect reputation and profits?
  4. Is it out in the public domain already?
  5. Could it undermine the day-to-day performance or value of the company?

If the answer is “yes” to points 1 or 2, it’s an issue to be managed carefully by the communications team to ensure it doesn’t become a crisis. If the answer is “yes” to 3, 4, or 5 – it’s a crisis and time to start putting on your armour. Speed and scale can turn a crisis public faster than you can blink.

Under pressure, decision making has to be fast AND good, which is undoubtedly not easy. Be mindful not to react in these ways:

Burying your head in the sand

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that what has been identified as a crisis will simply blow over by itself, especially if the initial outlook seems calm. Think about it like a tsunami tide – it flows out to sea before it comes back in with a vengeance.

In most cases, proactivity is key – few will defend you if you don’t put your side of the story across. Hostile coverage is inevitable when a PR crisis happens, and social media will only serve to further escalate any hostility stakeholders (and the general public) have towards your company.

Communicating your story early in an honest and transparent (as far as possible) way is the best way to win support. The aim is to ensure that you emerge from the crisis with  your reputation intact, and shake off the damaging effects faster.

The attack mode 

Launching a full blown attack and badmouthing the stakeholder, company, or even the media responsible for the potential reputation meltdown might seem like the easiest option. But this only serves to reflect badly on both you and the company you represent. Conducting yourself calmly and professionally ensures you keep your dignity and reputation as intact as possible.

PR jargon

Honest and simple communication is key. Do not try to confuse the media and stakeholders with jargon and acronyms which you think might make you appear more knowledgeable.  Keep your messages and language as human as possible, and more importantly, keep it consistent. This will reassure your investors, employees and other stakeholders that you are fully aware of the crisis, understand the severity of it, and are prepared to handle your company in a professional way.

If a crisis is well handled, it can prove to be an opportunity to demonstrate the company’s resilience, quick response and transparency. It also provides a platform to potentially build an even stronger reputation than before. Keep calm, breathe and keeps these tips in mind and you should be able to get through a crisis just fine.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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