5 Tips for Crisis Marketing: The Perils of Being McCain

Ian Lurie

John McCain took a big gamble yesterday, saying he was suspending his campaign until Congress could work out the $700 billion bailout plan.

It was a bad gamble, because he violated 4 of the 5 basic rules of crisis marketing. I usually apply these rules to internet marketing, but they tend to work everywhere:

1: Don’t Contradict Yourself Without Explanation

First rule: If you said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” two weeks ago, don’t turn around and say “Holy crap, this is a disaster!” You start sounding like Herbert Hoover, you confuse your audience, and you start setting off alarm bells among the folks who haven’t yet decided whether they like you or not.

If you must contradict yourself, explain it. This is even more important in business than in politics. If you said “Our product is fiiiiiine” last month, but this month have to say “OK, our product causes fatal nose warts”, explain it with “I was wrong”.

2: Be Calm

If you communicate panic, you engender it. You can communicate the fact that there’s a crisis, and that you’re on top of it, without screaming and running in circles.

While Senator McCain was stationery during his press conference yesterday, suspending his entire campaign and trying to duck out of the debates felt panicky to me. Can he really influence the outcome that much? No. So dropping everything and grabbing a bucket may not be the best move.

If your company’s got a problem, make your appearance, state what you’re doing, and then get to work. Don’t describe extraordinary measures if they won’t help. Make sure that folks hear: This is bad, but we can handle it. Not: OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE.

3: Be Honest, and Clear

Senator McCain said he was ‘suspending his campaign’. But he actually didn’t. He stopped running around. His team, though, was still in action.

He’s an honest guy. So I suspect this was a clarity problem, not an honesty one. But it rankled the media in particular, who are now having a field day with it.

In a crisis, get your whole team on board with your plan first. Then go public with it. That provides a unified message.

4: Don’t Shirk

If you have responsibilities such as filling orders, shipping product or, say, appearing at a debate, you should attend to those. Otherwise, you look overwhelmed.

The only exception: If the crisis itself hampers your ability to cover those responsibilities. If a hurricane wipes out your warehouse, OK, you can’t get the work done. If the IRS is auditing you, though, you’d better get that stuff shipped.

Also, the crisis will have an end (or it won’t matter). When it’s over, wouldn’t you like to still have all those customers?

5: Be First to the Community

This, Senator McCain did pretty well. He got the media together, explained what was going on, and then took action. That might make him look like a go-getter who’s on top of things, if the whole strategy doesn’t blow up in his face.

If you’re in trouble, be the first one to acknowledge it. Talk to the bloggers. Put the press release on your site. Don’t let someone else do it for you. That way you’ll control the conversation, and get points for keeping things under control.

Will this pay off for the Senator? I don’t know. But you can still learn some valuable lessons in how to manage a crisis in your business in the mean time.

Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. @Erika Some of my friends would swallow their tongues if they heard me referred to as ‘non-political’ and ‘shy’ in the same sentence. Glad you liked the post!

  2. Well, if he was suspending his campaign to go to Washington, why did he wait 22 hours before leaving New York? Apparently talking at the Clinton rally was more important, but the debates aren’t?
    Sorry, heard this on the Daily Show last night, and I laughed the whole time. It was a good move because most people will only hear that he suspended his campaign to go to Washington, a lot of people will never hear that he took his sweet time getting there.

  3. Let me summarize everything (sorry to sound narcissistic):
    If you want to learn how NOT to run a campaign (marketing or political), do a case study on McCain/Palin. Period.

  4. @Mark I do think McCain did a lot RIGHT. But in the last month or two he’s gone more for the wow potential than the solid message. Palin was a good choice for him because it was distruptive. But since then it’s become a problem.

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