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Media and Crisis Management

Crisis Lessons From a Store Bombing

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Crisis Lessons From a Store BombingCrisis response

We learn from the misfortune of others. Let’s go to school on the Lowe’s home improvement store bombings of 1999.

One late September afternoon pipe bombs blew up at Lowe’s home improvement stores in Salisbury and Asheboro. The two explosions wrecked shopping areas and badly injured a customer. A third unexploded pipe bomb turned up a week later at a store in Concord. The media horde descended. Investigators swarmed. It became the FBI’s number one investigation in the nation. Lowe’s managers worried how to protect customers, employees, and the corporate reputation. “Is it safe to shop at Lowe’s?”

Fortunately, it ended within weeks. Authorities arrested and imprisoned George Rocha of Greensboro who confessed to the crime. He had claimed he was angry about people being killed and injured in a fatal crash at a Lowe’s Motor Speedway race. He demanded $250,000 in extortion money. Ultimately he admitted his real motive was simple retribution for being caught shoplifting at Lowe’s.

Today the incident is history, troubling publicity gone, and the Lowe’s name intact. How did the North Wilkesboro based company achieve that? Jailing the culprit quickly helped, but how did the $20 billion a year retail giant manage the weeks of fear and uncertainty before that? Vice President Brian Peace detailed the actions in a presentation before a public relations organization. Here are some of the critical steps he outlined. My comments are italicized.

1. Deploy your crisis team – The Lowe’s team was comprised of the chief administrative officer, general counsel, corporate PR, loss prevention, and a national PR firm representative. The CEO was highly engaged as well as the CFO and COO at times. Brian said having the team established in advance was critical, with the first 6 hours being vital. He was not sure that a pre-crisis drill would have helped much.Amme note – Create a small crisis team now! Involve the COO, general counsel, and PR. Designate cadres of company experts for support. Specify how all can be contacted 24/7.

2. Manage your external message – While the company allowed media access to stores, it strictly limited public comment to spokespeople at corporate headquarters. The CEO spoke only when serious injuries were an issue, with corporate communications handling the rest. The four primary messages were: 1. deep concern for the injured, 2. cooperation with investigators, 3. enhanced security (without elaboration), and 4. safety and security for customers are top priority. A company should speak with one voice. However, if the situation is not too severe, local spokespeople are preferable to distant corporate voices. 

3. Manage your internal message – While store managers did not speak to the media, they did talk to worried employees and customers. The company gave them Q&A’s to address common concerns. Lowe’s also brought in counselors for the staff, as needed. Always keep stakeholders in the loop. 

4. Contain the news – This was the primary goal of the PR effort. Lowe’s serves 40 states, but the bombings involved just one region of a single state. Since there is no advantage to spreading bad news beyond the affected area, Lowe’s focused its public relations effort on central NC. It avoided actions that would unnecessarily extend news of the case beyond the immediate region. It worked. The bombings never caught fire as a national story, although they received intense local coverage. Strive to “keep the box small,” limiting the story to the smallest geographical area.

5. Monitor the news – Lowe’s tracked the location and content of news coverage. This provided valuable feedback on how the story was being told. If reporters were misstating facts, Lowe’s would correct errors before they were repeated. The company also thanked those getting it right. A major value of media monitoring was to reveal that the press was portraying Lowe’s as a victim of the crime rather than culpable for it. Had the coverage skewed negative, Brian Peace said the company was prepared to launch a major PR effort to restore confidence. That was never required.

6. Put PR consultants on retainer – They will join your crisis organization in the trenches and provide expert guidance on an ongoing basis. Do this now so that they know you and your culture and can hit the ground running. PR firms can provide arms and legs, but choose a firm with proven crisis experience. Be sure the firm’s crisis veterans, not novices, are working alongside you.

Lowe’s wanted the bombing story to fade without being perpetually linked to with the company. Their success is a guide for the rest of us.

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