Communicating with confidence in a crisis: Lessons from Theranos

theranos accountability final

Some bad blood has developed over the last couple of weeks between tech startup Theranos and the Wall Street Journal. Theranos a Silicon Valley company run by 31-year-old CEO Elizabeth Holmes, is claiming to have revolutionized blood testing with technology that can run all your tests with just the prick of a finger. Holmes’ goal in founding Theranos was to make blood testing accessible and efficient and, until recent speedbumps, she appeared to be well on her way. However, the Wall Street Journal published an article last week claiming Theranos’ technology is not quite as sound as the company has made it out to be:

Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled with It’s Blood-Test Technology

Since the article’s publication, Theranos has released three statements refuting the claims.

  1. First Statement from Theranos
  2. Second Statement from Theranos
  3. Theranos Facts

So why has the situation continued to escalate despite these refutations? We used our proprietary language analytics platform to analyze the content of these press releases and find out.

What Theranos is doing right:

From our analysis, Theranos did make strides in improving its crisis communications as these events unfolded. From the first response to the Wall Street Journalto the most recent, Theranos’ content has become 33.5 percent more credible, and 1.7 times more persuasive.

These improvements can be attributed to the health company’s tactical shift. While the first two responses were more general refutations of the Journal article, this most recent offers a point-by-point rebuttal of the allegations, bolstered all the way by clear and in-depth discussion of their own processes, as well as incorporation of third party sources that give extra weight to their claims.

Where Theranos can improve:

Despite the company’s shift in communications strategy, we found that:

Theranos’ responses to the Journal’s allegations were not as effective as they could have been due to a lack of executive accountability and a sharp decrease in optimistic language.

  1. Lack of Executive Accountability
    The primary shortcoming in these statements is an absence of executive accountability. Previous Theranos press releases have prominently featured Holmes discussing her passion for the company and the way it promises to shape the future. However, in the three responses to the Wall Street Journal, Holmes is not directly quoted; in fact, there is not a single case of a Theranos executive speaking to the issues or staking individual credibility on the truthfulness of the content.
    Our studies have found that readers place greater trust in content when an executive owns the message, showing both accountability and transparency during a time of crisis. This personal investment by an executive is critical in building trust with consumers and investors alike.
  2. Decreasing Optimism
    As the situation has developed, the level of optimism Theranos conveys has declined. The company’s responses to the Journal have gotten more and more defensive until they became so focused on rebutting the allegations that they completely dropped any discussion of the positive effects Theranos’ technology will have on the future of testing.

It is natural to focus on rebuttals in a crisis; however, our research has shown that the most effective communicators will also be able to articulate their key message points with a positive emphasis on the future. Theranos may be better served by reminding readers they are optimistic their improvements to the health industry will benefit millions of people.

Ultimately, the most effective way to mitigate crisis is through dedicated transparency and strong executive leadership. While Theranos faltered initially, now that they have begun to shift from reactive defensiveness and to adopt this approach, they have a better opportunity to regain control of their narrative and regain the passion for innovation that created the initial excitement around the promise of their technology.

To learn more about how we can help your team use analytics to evaluate and strengthen your crisis communications strategy, contact us at

Read more about crisis communication analytics from Quantified Communications.