EMOTIONS & CRISIS RESPONSE: How Emotions Can Sink Brands

Crisis Response: The Role of Emotions
Branson emergency response officials have been in crisis response mode for days since a Duck Boat full of tourists sank during a storm. The tragedy claimed 17 lives and the Coast Guard has finally recovered the water-logged boat from its resting place at the bottom of Table Rock Lake outside of Branson, Missouri. Unused orange life jackets are still hanging from the boat’s canopy, funerals are now being planned and lives are forever changed. The group that owns Branson Duck Boats has implemented some typical reputation management strategies and crisis communications guidelines. Only time will tell if the company can salvage its brand and rebuild trust in the wake of this terrible crisis. Duck Boat’s outcome largely depends on their understanding of emotions in crises – in particular what our crisis consulting firm calls Emotional Memory Tags™ or EMTs.

Media Coverage – Emotions & Public Perceptions
Last week I was in Branson for a family reunion and several of us thought about riding the Duck Boats. This week, Duck Boat rides look about as appealing as a snowball in the middle of a major ice storm. I have long considered the Duck Boat rides in Boston, D.C., and other cities where we work; the brand promises a fun and adventurous way for visitors to see local attractions. But now, in the wake of the Duck Boat crisis, two news media stories completely reversed my thinking about Duck Boat – and there are scientific explanations behind my new perception of the brand that are crucial to effective reputation management.

  • First, I watched the heart-wrenching “live” news conference of the Tia Coleman. She lost nine of her close family members and her losses are beyond human comprehension. It was heartbreaking to hear Coleman refer to her husband and three children in the present tense, as if they were still alive.
  • Second, I saw a story about Steven Paul, the mechanical inspector who checked out the Branson Duck Boats last year; he told news reporters he had warned the Duck Boat company about massive design flaws. After his inspection, he told his wife their family would not be riding ducks ever again. He says the boats’ canopies are “death traps”.
When emotions are aroused in the brain, memories are tagged and impact how stakeholders perceive the brand in crisis.

Emotions That Stick During Crises
Emotional reactions to crises determine short and long-term thinking about a brand. This is why anyone involved in reputation management or crisis response planning needs to understand the core principles related to what our crisis consulting experts call Emotional Memory Tags™.  Studies show how heightened emotions cause your mind to “tag” certain moments in time. At Benchmark, we liken this to tagging friends on social media. Once tagged, those emotional moments are much more prominent on your memory timeline. In the coming weeks, how Duck Boat’s leadership responds to the Branson crisis will affect the public’s Emotional Memory Tags™ and the Duck Boat brand for years to come. So far, Duck Boat’s leadership has done little in their crisis response to sway emotions in their direction.

Emotions & The Crisis Ripple Effect
Daily, more stories are emerging across media platforms about problems at other Duck Boat locations around the country. This is an example of a crisis ripple effect that is now spreading beyond the organization that owns the Branson Duck Boat franchise. Therefore, more emotional tagging will take place in the coming weeks as people hear more victims’ stories and other news that could possibly paint a dark picture of Duck Boat leadership putting profits over people.

Emotions are high during a crisis.
During an organizational crisis, memory and emotions can be strongly linked, resulting in higher recall.

Emotional Triggers & Crisis Recall
Studies prove that highly emotional moments are more deeply cemented into the crevices of your memory. This is true for both negative and positive emotional moments. Psychologists at the University of Toronto say it is because the more something means to you the more it influences how you see it and how vividly you can recall it later. So, you may not recall what you did two weekends ago, but a song can trigger a memory and you are able to recall exactly where you were and who you were with when you heard the song many years ago. This is also why people who experience tragic news such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks can tell you where they were and who they were with when that news broke.

Brands That Miss The “Emotion Mark”
Knowing that emotional arousal creates greater sensory recall provides invaluable insights for risk management and crisis response teams into how to better assess and manage crises. How an organization responds to emotions during a crisis impacts if it joins the great junkyard of crisis failures, or takes the narrow path toward a more successful outcome. At Benchmark, we often say, “It’s not the initial crisis that inflicts the most harm to a brand – it is the organization’s inept response to the emotions behind the crisis that causes the most harm!” Our crisis consultants have studied the role and impact of emotional tagging for almost 30 years, resulting in the creation of multiple tools to help organizations better assess core emotions in the wake of a crisis. The simple truth is this: organizations that respond quickly and swim downstream with the emotions have a much greater chance of recovering and rebuilding trust.

During a corporate crisis, the news media and social media are like the blood stream, carrying emotions to an organization’s stakeholder ecosystem.

Chipotle Crisis & Public Perceptions
Organizations that fail to understand the power of emotional tagging tend to limp along as they work to regain stakeholder trust and market positioning in the wake of a crisis. This is what is happening with Chipotle Mexican Grill. The once popular restaurant chain has been limping along for the past three years since its initial norovirus crisis spilled out of hospital emergency rooms and into news rooms and across social media. I know people who were once major Chipotle fans, but they now walk past their restaurants. Unfortunately for Chipotle, the company didn’t have just one wave of gut-wrenching victim stories to address in their crisis; they were hit with multiple waves of virus outbreaks at multiple store locations across the nation – feeding the emotional rollercoaster of victim stories and news cycles. As soon as Chipotle leaders thought they had addressed and survived one wave of emotional stories – they were hit with another wave! This resulted in many more victim stories than most organizations typically experience in a crisis – and multiplied the Emotional Memory Tags. This has weakened Chipotle’s ability to get back on its feet, recover and rebuild for the future. At Benchmark, we liken news media and social media sites to a sort of crisis blood stream that carries these Emotional Memory Tags to other parts of your organization’s ecosystem.

Reputation Management & Storytelling
Emotions are the foundation of all successful storytelling. Stories are powerful because they cause people to let down their conscious “data guard”, allowing effective storytellers to emotionally transport people to places they might not otherwise go. Perhaps you have seen the study that reveals a retention increase of 70% when stories are combined with data! Both traditional media and social media thrive on emotional stories during crises, and this is where most organizations miss the mark in their crisis communications response. They tend to batten down the emotional hatches and go into more of a data dump mode from their perspective – when they are being pummeled by the overwhelming power of emotions and storytelling from their stakeholders’ perspectives. Corporate crisis leaders should also keep in mind that when stories make people angry, the impact of emotional tagging increases; a Japanese study confirms that anger is the emotion that spreads quickest across social media channels.

Can the Duck Boat Brand Be Salvaged?
Branson’s Duck Boat leadership team is facing the worst type of crisis possible with so many lost lives and families shattered. Over the coming months Duck Boat’s leaders will attempt to salvage its brand and rebuild trust. Their leaders must make wise judgements on how best to align with the overwhelming emotions – both behind the scenes and in front of the news media cameras.

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Crisis Consultants / Crisis Experts
Our crisis consultants have helped Fortune 500 groups and others address a range of issues: food contamination, class action lawsuits, activist protests, government investigations, competitor meddling, mass killings, union issues, environmental disasters, E coli outbreaks, industrial accidents, oil spills, regulatory issues, chemical releases and much more.