In just about any newspaper or PR publication today, it seems you can find a column from somebody about what Target has done wrong in handling its ongoing data breach crisis. Now, I could write this post about my take on the same stuff, but all I’d be doing is contributing more noise to the situation. And I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t do that in this blog. Instead, what I’d like to do in this post is make two assertions…thoughts I’d like to submit to you as my not-so-obvious lessons learned from this crisis situation.
First, it’s awful easy for the talking heads on TV and those of us in PR to always look back on big crisis events like this, extrapolate the details and offer our opinions on how a situation should have been handled. But I don’t think any of us know the whole truth or appreciate the entire situation that Target, its executives, its PR staff, etc. find themselves in. I’m not necessarily saying Target hasn’t done anything wrong. My point here is that I’m pretty darn sure Target’s PR team is doing the best they can given the fixed resources at their disposal and the unprecedented situation thrust upon them. A situation they probably have surprisingly little control over and decision-making power within. A situation in which only a few of us (if even that many) can truly appreciate because we’ve been deep in the throes of something like it ourselves. How can anyone really editorialize and criticize when they don’t have any parallel experience, don’t really know what happened, can’t appreciate the subtle nuances and pressures of a decision, don’t have their phones ringing off the hook 24/7 from media and angry consumers demanding answers, etc.? To me, the lesson here is to try to dig in deeper, put ourselves in their shoes and appreciate how and why key decisions have been made – not just to criticize the what and the when. It’s these details that I think generate the best discussions…and teach the lasting lessons.
Second, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are two essential elements of any good crisis communications plan. The first, obviously, is the reactive part – how an organization should respond and react to any given situation they might find themselves in. The second and often forgotten part is the proactive – how an organization can “bank goodwill” with key stakeholders and constituent groups, so that when a crisis hits a company has some equity built up to help them minimize the damage and emerge with their brand essence intact. In Target’s case…how has the company helped its headquarters market (my home, Minneapolis/St. Paul) and the individual communities where its stores are? How has it advanced causes important to its employees and shoppers – and its own strategic goals? Have people had good experiences with Target, its stores and its brand? While it might be a bit disingenuous for Target to blitz the media with feel-good stories like this right now, people are naturally inclined to forgive and forget if they have positive experiences with you and feel like you’ve been a good citizen during the good times. For example, when Target offered 10% off everything in its stores that first weekend after the breach was reported, sales were only down 3-4% from the same weekend the year before. I might be going out on a limb here, but I think Target deserves credit on the proactive side. A sales drop like that is surely news in the retail world, but it could definitely be worse for them right now (stock price, store sales and visits, general sentiment) than it is.
What do you think?