The Two-Minute Crisis Response: 5 Communication Lessons from Steve Harvey’s Miss Universe Pageant Blunder

It could go down as the most epic beauty pageant blunder of all time. But, Steve Harvey’s reaction at the Miss Universe pageant could also go down as the most timely crisis response in history. More than ten million viewers were front and center as the drama played out on live television. The music swelled and the audience applauded when Miss Colombia accepted her crown as Miss Universe 2015. Miss Philippines graciously accepted her first runner-up status and faded into the background to allow the winner the glory of the moment.

Meanwhile, Steve Harvey disappeared and backstage there was a mad scramble as everyone realized the wrong beauty had been crowned. This was live television and the show was about to go off the air, so something had to be done and quick. Pageant host Steve Harvey is a comedian, so some even thought he was joking when he stepped up to say he had made a mistake and misread the card, but this was no joke. Former Miss Universe pageant owner Donald Trump quickly chimed in on Twitter to say this would have never happened on his watch. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was quick to express his outrage, and Steve Harvey quickly became the butt of social media jokes. But, could there be a silver lining to this pageant crisis? One of the golden rules of crisis response is to learn from your response, so here are some takeaways from this debacle:

1. The clock is ticking  In the case of the Miss Universe pageant, a slow response was not an option with a live telecast. In less than two minutes, Steve Harvey stepped in front of the live audience and 10 million viewers to correct the situation with a heartfelt apology. Many companies take too long to get “in front” of the story when faced with a crisis. You may recall it took the pet food manufacturer Menu Foods almost three weeks to respond to reports of pet deaths, and that was two weeks after nine dogs died in the company’s own tasting labs. Pet owners were outraged and investigations by regulatory groups followed.

2. The buck stops here – Steve Harvey quickly said, “This is my fault… I read the card wrong and made a mistake.” Organizations that get this principle come out much better than those who try to blame someone else. Remember the famous Firestone / Ford Motor Company crisis involving more than 13 million bad tires recalled in 2000? When Ford and Firestone publicly blamed one another they hurt the credibility of both organizations and greatly affected consumer confidence. The same thing happened in the wake of the BP oil spill when BP quickly blamed Transocean and Halliburton. Blaming others only broadens the media and public spotlight.

3.  So sorry – Steve Harvey immediately apologized, saying, “I’d like to apologize wholeheartedly to Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines for my huge mistake. I feel terrible.” Not too many years ago lawyers advised their CEOs and spokespersons to never apologize. However, in recent years more and more leaders have opted for apologizing and with good results. You may recall the Maple Leaf Foods’ listeria crisis that claimed twenty-one lives and sickened scores of others in Canada. Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain took to TV and YouTube where he delivered a heartfelt apology to the families who lost loved ones and to all who were sickened. Consumer confidence in Maple Leaf actually increased that following year and the Canadian Press named McCain CEO of The Year. On the other hand, when Blue Bell Ice Cream was faced with multiple deaths from its listeria-laden product, CEO Paul Kruse went on camera with more emphasis about how upset ice cream lovers would be without a cold dish of Blue Bell. Really, he talked about the joys of eating ice cream.

4.  Oh say can you see – Studies show the spoken word coupled with visuals is much more compelling and memorable. Steve Harvey showed television viewers the card that listed the names of the winner and the two runners-up. By immediately showing the actual card, people could see for themselves that Miss Philippines was the true winner. When Pepsi was hit with the “syringe in the soda cans” crisis years ago, the company took video cameras into the bottling plants to show it was impossible for syringes to be inserted on the high speed bottling line. That video was the beginning of the end of Pepsi’s crisis.

5.  The likability factor – It is hard to dislike Steve Harvey. He is funny, sincere and just plain nice. At this year’s pageant he took off his “Host and Comedian” hat and traded it in for the crown of “Incident Commander” and “Crisis Spokesperson”. Despite the jokes now floating around social media channels about his mistake, many are standing by the beloved host. On Twitter, Magic Johnson, Al Roker, comedian Mindy Kaling and many others have tweeted out their support for Harvey. Kaling even said, “You couldn’t have paid me to care about Miss Universe competition before this. I love Steve Harvey. And both contestants, now, actually.” When your spokesperson is credible and likable, things often have a way of working out. Unfortunately, there is a very long list of crisis spokespersons that are not so likable.

What about that silver lining for the Miss Universe pageant and for Steve Harvey? Because this incident was handled quickly and honestly, their brands could actually benefit. So, stay tuned in for next year’s pageant and see if the ratings and audience grow.