Communication Shipwrecks: Lessons Learned from Communication Failures in the Workplace (Part 2)


This is the second in our series of white papers about “Communication Shipwrecks”—real-life mishaps that occurred in the worlds of business, government, and academia. Again, the object of these papers is not to mock or assign blame. Instead, it is to highlight the ways good communication practices could have helped avoid such troubled examples of bad writing, which have affected everyone from LeBron James to Santa Claus.

LeBron James

The shipwreck:On July 8, 2010, basketball superstar LeBron James announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. An Ohio native, James had been treated as a local hero by Cleveland fans for seven years. His announcement was made on a high-rated ESPN special called “The Decision,” complete with special music and bright lights. It was almost as if James were declaring himself for the presidency and publicly thumbing his nose at Cleveland.

Within hours, cyberspace and TV were full of poisoned comments directed at James. He was described by Ohioans as everything from a selfish egotist to a cowardly traitor. Later, James himself said that if he had to do it again, “I probably would do [the announcement] a little bit different.” Indeed, when he returned to the Cavaliers in 2011, he made the announcement quietly, in an essay in Sports Illustrated.

The lesson: As the saying goes, “The medium is the message,” and tone is as important as content. News delivered boastfully on prime-time national television has a different effect from news delivered modestly in a magazine. In the workplace it’s the same: news delivered by company-wide memo, for example, has a different effect from news delivered by more carefully targeted emails or in-person meetings.

Air Force One

The shipwreck: On April 27, 2009, a Boeing VC-25 jet airliner came streaking toward Manhattan and began circling near the Statue of Liberty, flying low, followed by an F-16 jet fighter. In New York City below, memories of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were still fresh, with images of jets flying into the World Trade Center towers. When New Yorkers saw this low-circling jetliner, some imagined that another attack was imminent. A few buildings issued evacuation orders. Some citizens ran outside in a state of panic.

In fact, the airliner in question was Air Force One, the plane of the U.S. President, and it was simply doing a photo op to create souvenirs for the public. Some local politicians had been told of the photo op, but no one had told the mayor or the general public. President Obama, who didn’t know of the photo op and wasn’t on board, was furious. So were New Yorkers. At least one White House aide was obliged to resign.

The lesson: In some ways, the lesson here is the flip side of the LeBron James’ lesson. James should have delivered his message in a more limited, quieter way, to a more controlled audience; those who arranged the Air Force One photo op should have delivered the message of their activities in more widely and loudly, to as large a local audience as possible. Good communication requires not just a well-crafted message, but careful control of the message chain: everyone who should receive the message must receive it, from bottom to top.


The shipwreck: In February 2013, the Yahoo! HR department sent a memo to all Yahoo employees announcing that henceforth all employees would be required to work in the company’s offices. This overturned the lives of many Yahoo! employees who, until then, had been allowed to work from home.

In the memo, the company “explained” the change by claiming, for example, “We want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum” and “I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.” Employees found such statements empty and unpersuasive. What, they wanted to know, were the real reasons for the change? Was telecommuting hurting the company’s productivity? Was it costing the company money? Had the company even explored other solutions? The memo didn’t address any such substantive issues. At Yahoo!, employee morale plummeted.

The lesson: In any business, communications with employees must be clear, honest, respectful, and thorough. Any workplace document, whether directed up the corporate chain or down, should take into account what its audience wants and needs to know. When you deliver important news, remember that spin is no substitute for substance.

Roswell Honda

The shipwreck: In July 2007, some folks in Roswell, New Mexico, went to their mailboxes to discover that they had each won $1,000 from the Roswell Honda car dealership in a scratch-off direct-mail sweepstakes. How many folks got winning tickets? Thirty thousand. Uh oh. There was supposed to be only one $1,000 winner. The car dealership was left trying to explain that they couldn’t pay off all the “winning” tickets.

Turns out the ad agency that had designed the promotion had failed to check the scratch-off tickets carefully, and everyone who got the mailer was a “winner.” That left both the ad agency and the car dealership with mud all over their bright, shiny reputations.

The lesson: Proofreading sounds simple and automatic. When a document reaches your desk, it’s easy to assume that someone else has taken care of the small details. Never assume that. Before being widely circulated, every document, no matter how small, deserves careful attention to detail, at every step of the process.


The shipwreck: From 2000 to 2010, dozens of people driving Toyota-model cars died in accidents as a result of “unintended acceleration”; their cars continued to speed up even as they took their feet off the accelerator pedal and hit the brakes. Initially, Toyota blamed “driver error” as the cause of the problems. As the accidents piled up and were reported on social media, the company then began to blame the cars’ floor mats, in which gas pedals were supposedly getting stuck. Finally, after years of public investigation, the company was forced to acknowledge that an engineering flaw was causing its cars’ gas pedals to stick—a problem it had known about for a long time but had refused to own up to.

In the end, Toyota was forced to recall tens of millions of cars, settle a number of lawsuits, and pay a $1.2 billion federal fine for lying to regulators, Congress, and the public. It is still trying to repair its reputation.

The lesson: Honest communication has always been a moral imperative. In the age of the Internet, when information is nearly impossible to suppress, honest, transparent corporate communication with the public must be honest, transparent, clear, accurate, and thorough. In today’s marketplace, businesses must expect to be held accountable—and to clearly acknowledge their accountability in both word and deed.


The shipwreck: In August 2014, Chao Li, of Kansas City, MO, bought four tickets for members of her family who lived in China to come to the US for her wedding the following month. She purchased the tickets on Air China, using the travel website Orbitz. But when her family in China got to the airport, the authorities wouldn’t let them board the plane. Why not? Because the names on their passports did not match the names on their tickets. Chao Li quickly had to buy $5,000 worth of new tickets to get her family to the wedding.

The problem, it turned out, was that Orbitz and Air China have different ways of putting passengers’ middle names on ticket applications. Orbitz had failed to make its instructions clear about that. Only after local TV stations reported the story did Orbitz admit its error and reimburse Chao Li.

The lesson: When disparate organizations work together, they need to share both consistent standards of operation and clearly laid-out communication procedures, and those procedures must be clearly communicated to their customers. Without such a marriage of the minds even a wedding can be endangered.


The shipwreck: At the beginning of 2011, if you subscribed to Netflix, you could have DVDs delivered to your home and stream them on your TV. But that year the company decided to split itself in two: “Netflix” would still mail you DVDs, but the streaming service would now be called “Qwikster.” To get both services, customers now had to deal with two different companies and set up two accounts, with two payment systems. Netflix announced the split in a blog and a video.

The Qwikster roll-out was a disaster. Customers didn’t understand it. Among other things that confused them, the name “Qwikster” had no connection to Netflix or streaming. In fact, if they went to @Qwikster on Twitter to file a complaint, they ended up at the site of a marijuana-happy teenager who owned the name. Many customers left Netflix altogether. The company’s stock plummeted. Before long, the company’s CEO gave up and killed Qwikster.

The lesson: In the corporate world, big changes for customers or employees should be carefully communicated, through easily accessible media (a letter or email, perhaps, not a blog) and in language that makes sense. Even business or product names demand careful thought. “Qwikster,” for example, means nothing; “Netflix Streaming” might have made things clearer.


The shipwreck: The Sweden-based home-furnishings company Ikea is famous for its modernistic furniture styles and for one other thing: its wordless assembly instructions. Buy an Ikea computer station, for example, and you get 32 pages of assembly instructions without a single word—only illustrations. In this way, the company, which has customers worldwide, can avoid having to print its instructions in many languages.

Wordless instructions, however, can have two drawbacks: 1) they sometimes leave out steps and 2) they don’t work well for those who are not good at translating the images they see into actions. The results can be tragic. In recent years, at least two children were killed when Ikea dressers tipped over onto them. Ikea claims that it warns buyers (in words) to anchor such items to walls to prevent them from tipping over, but the instructions for doing so are, once again, entirely in images, easily ignored, and the means of anchoring them are not always provided. In response, Ikea has had to create a series of TV ads warning its customers always to anchor large pieces of furniture.

The lesson: Instruction manuals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are among the most important documents an organization produces. Clear instructions, using an effective mix of images and words, are necessary to prevent frustration and safety problems.

Deepwater Horizon

The shipwreck: On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. Eleven workers were killed. The resulting oil spill was the largest in history. Nearly 5 million barrels of oil polluted the gulf and its surrounding shoreline, killing millions of animals, damaging whole underwater and shoreline ecosystems, destroying Gulf Coast businesses, and costing BP, the company that ran the rig, more than $42 billion in criminal and civil settlements.

The Presidential Commission that examined the causes of the disaster blamed three companies: BP itself; the rig’s engineering firm Halliburton; and Transocean, which owned the rigs. Technology failures were of course part of the problem, but so was something else: together, the report said, the companies had a “failure of management” that included major “communication failures.” The three companies involved, for example, had not shared a number of technological issues clearly with each other from the very conception of the drilling operation. And on the day of the explosion, rig technicians had conducted pressure tests that suggested something might be wrong—but the results of those basic tests had never been communicated clearly to, taken seriously by, or properly interpreted by those in charge. After the explosion, further communication failures complicated the oil-spill cleanup in the region.

The lesson: The President’s Report on the disaster explained that it could have been prevented by, among other things, “better communication within and between BP and its contractors.” Careful communication procedures are especially important when different departments or organizations are trying to work together. And every company should know: It’s not just instruction-manual writers and PR folks, but also engineers, scientists, and technicians who must be taught how to analyze, receive, and share information effectively.


The shipwreck: On Christmas Day, 2013, Santa Claus himself was the victim of a communication failure. During most of the day on Christmas Eve that year, UPS, the package delivery company, continued to assure customers online that their Christmas gifts would arrive by Christmas morning. Then suddenly, at the very end of the day, thousands of customers were told that, nope, sorry, their packages wouldn’t arrive until after Christmas. For thousands of UPS customers, Santa would miss his deadline.

The failure to deliver was bad enough. UPS’ delay in communicating the problem was just as bad. And worse, still, was the way UPS responded to the snafu: it cavalierly tried to dismiss the problem, claiming that “only a small percentage” of customers were affected—hardly consoling to those thousands of households where Santa failed to show up.

The lesson: Timely, accurate, honest communication is at the heart of good customer service—and of good business practices, period.


These types of errors occur for a variety of reasons but, as we’ve illustrated, poor communication is at the heart. Ensuring that your team has the tools it needs to plan, write, and revise effectively and efficiently can prevent such errors. Hurley Write can help you ensure that your organization’s internal and external communications are efficient and effective so you can avoid similarly problematic poor communication examples. Our instructor-led writing workshops, delivered at your facility; interactive online courses; and customized webinars use readability studies as the foundation, which means that your team learns real strategies to help them write targeted documents that are clear, concise, and precise.