In a crisis, the blame game never works

Type: CW Observer Blog
Topic: Crisis and Change
By Kate Connors
11 November 2014

blame-gameRule No. 1 of communicating during a crisis: If there is any reasonable doubt about whether you or your company is to blame for a situation, you should never bring someone else down to try and bring yourself up. As PR professionals, it is our job to advise our clients when to take the fall and when to offer no comment. And most communication professionals would agree that playing the blame game is never the right answer. History teaches us that this trick has never worked. Consider these three classic examples.

Blaming the victims.
It is hard to forget the media frenzy and public sympathy that occurred after it was revealed that there was an alarming number of suicide attempts and tragic deaths among Foxconn Technology Group’s Chinese workforce. But what was even harder to forget? CEO Terry Gou’s response to the news media, which was to blame personal problems among employees and ignore any potential work complications. Gou had a chance to be a hero. He could have started an investigation into employee conditions, offered to have a psychologist on staff for a period following the deaths, or hosted work/life balance seminars.

“What the hell did we do to deserve this?”
These words were spoken by former BP CEO Tony Hayward to fellow executives in London about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Hayward made a lot of mistakes when it came to handling the BP oil spill crisis, but his biggest one was trying to place the blame on someone else. In the beginning of the crisis, Hayward tried to push the blame off of BP by pointing out that the oil rig was actually owned by Transocean, and BP was only leasing it from the company. He pointed out that most of the people working on the rig were Transocean employees. People do not want to engage in a “blame game” after tragedy and death; they want all parties to take responsibility and work to fix it. Being the bigger person/corporation and taking on responsibility will ultimately help your public image more in the future and help you rebrand yourself after a PR disaster.

Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter’s response to Obamacare.
In the U.S, Papa John’s may be the face of pizza, but after the CEO threatened to cut workers hours and raise the cost of pizza to offset the cost of the new healthcare regulations imposed by the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare), there were a lot of people who wanted to throw a pizza in his face. The biggest issue here? Papa John’s had just surpassed their numbers from a year ago by 25 percent. When brands offer mixed messaging about how they are doing overall as a corporation, it leads to consumer mistrust.

I know some individuals are going to argue that “any press is good press.” But the best thing you can do is take responsibility when appropriate and offer to investigate cloudier situations. The worst thing you can do? Blame someone else for your mistake.


Kate Connors

Kate Connors is senior account manager and social media strategist at Media & Communications Strategies, based in Washington, D.C.


  1. Culture in organizations is driven by the top. Where the executives won’t take responsibility for their organizations bad behaviour or performance you can see the trickle down in attitude to the employees.

    A prime, and recent, example in Canada of a firm blaming others in a poor PR deflection attempt is Rogers, who claim that the CRTC is to blame for falling profits for allowing consumers more leeway to leave their contracts.

    While blaming the regulator body for your poor performance when the rules apply to your competitors is simply executives trying to deflect the damage away from their own reputations. It simply rings of falsehood and insincerity and isn’t convincing anyone, not investors, not the public, nor customers. And yes, while it is easier to say someone else was at fault,than to admit your own shortcomings, EVERYONE sees through the blame game in PR for the hollow truth that it is.

    In today’s world of instant and thorough research capabilities it is only a matter of minutes before the world will call you you out on this game. It’s now time to play the only PR card that matters anymore, the truth.

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