Crisis comms: polar-opposite approaches

We believe that garment and other manufacturing workers around the world deserve better than the reality that many unfortunately face. We recognize and embrace our duty to take a leadership role.

And so opens the Gap Inc. 2003 social responsibility report. The company is being upfront about the realities in their factories overseas - that workers face unreasonable and sometimes unsafe work conditions, lengthy work days, and may be underage.

Few factories, if any, are in full compliance all of the time. If they were, we wouldn't need a code or the extensive resources we devote to monitoring. When we find problems, we work with management to try to resolve them as quickly as possible. We will stay with a manufacturer as long as we believe it is committed to making ongoing improvements.

The Gap knows there is a problem, and they have addressed it head on. They will still be criticized for sponsoring unsatisfactory work conditions and they will be castigated for not doing more to help foreign workers, but this report clearly communicates the Gap's position, their goals and their action plan. Because they have communicated openly and broadly about the problems they face with their contractors, the Gap will likely not be harangued by visceral public reaction into immediate and drastic change, and their brand will not be demonized.

Similar advice is being offered in the WSJ by a range of experienced communicators on a different issue - the photos of abuse in Iraq. (sub. req.) There are several opinions presented, here is Howard Rubenstein's:

From the very beginning, I would have released the photos all at one time. This is like slow water torture. If you don´t put all the bad news out all at once during a crisis, there is a `drip, drip´ effect that keeps the story alive.

In politics they spend too much time on how to spin a story instead of asking right up front, What is the right thing to do? 'I would also advise them not to pass the buck down the totem pole. Find out who is ultimately responsible for what has happened.

I think they should be highlighting the good things out there, such as the heroics of our armed servicemen. They could even spend a lot more time showing the rebuilding of Iraq. Even the human-interest stories of our soldiers, who have done good things, should be played up.

If there is any effort to cover up or soft-pedal, that will be explosive in nature. There is so much scrutiny and such global communications today that only the truth will work. We don´t need spin doctors, we need factual, open discussions.