Five tips for handling a P.R. disaster

 By Timothy Goodman

A poorly-handled public relations mess can inflict lasting – and sometimes permanent – damage on a company’s reputation.  Think of Ford’s and Firestone’s costly mishandling of their recall of 6.5 million blowout-prone tires a decade ago, BP’s botched response to its oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Penn State’s fumbling of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal the following year, and Abercrombie & Fitch’s dissing of its plus-size customers last summer.  Sooner or later, many companies face similar situations.  Remembering a few simple, common-sense tips can help limit the carnage, or even turn the predicament into a net plus.

First and most important, the best way to defuse a potential explosion is to be prepared for it in the first place.  You probably have a business continuity plan for keeping your company running in case of a system meltdown, natural catastrophe, or 9/11-type event.  If you’re smart, you look at that plan frequently, practice it, and test it to ensure it’s complete and that everyone involved understands it.  Having a detailed and well-oiled P.R. disaster response plan at your fingertips can be just as important for managing and rebounding from an image imbroglio.

Being prepared for all sorts of nasty contingencies isn’t as hard as it might sound.  Nobody knows your business better than you – or can anticipate better the different problems that might arise.  Here are a few questions that any good crisis response plan should answer:

  • What sort of crises might you face, given the nature of your business, products, customers, and the regulations under which you operate? What criteria should you use to distinguish a truly enterprise-threatening menace from a run-of-the-mill “issue” requiring a more standard response?   For each crisis scenario, your plan should include a designated spokesperson; pre-approved procedures clearly identifying roles, responsibilities and time frames; template holding statements, FAQs and social media posts; and key messages for proactive use keyed to all important stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders, regulators, and public officials.
  • What mechanisms have you established to get wind of a potential or emerging crisis before it detonates?  Are the company’s employees primed to pass along anything they might hear from customers or other stakeholders about looming problems? Are you proactively and continually monitoring conversation in traditional and social media about your brand, company, and products – via an automated service such as Google Alerts, for instance?  Just as with health, early detection makes it easier and less expensive to treat problems and increases your chance for a lasting cure.

Second, it’s vital to speak out fast – maybe not immediately, but in most cases within the first hour or two.   Social media consultant Jay Baer is probably right that if you can’t post a video from your CEO within four hours, no matter where he or she is worldwide and regardless of the hour of day or night, you’re not prepared to move fast enough:

Acknowledging a crisis publicly and rapidly shows you’re clued in, builds trust with your customers and other audiences, and helps you become the main point of reference for journalists and others seeking information.

Speed also increases your chances of shaping your stakeholders’ perceptions.  It permits you to quash rumors and speculation, address your audience’s questions and concerns, and control the story as it evolves.

Depending on the severity of the predicament, it’s advisable to comment up to several times daily, even if you have no new information.  Simply by reminding your audience that you’re on top of the situation and will provide more information as soon as possible, you can show that you’re engaged and, most importantly, that you care.

It’s also helpful to consolidate all available information in one easily-accessible spot, such as your company web site– including the facts about what happened, what you’re doing about it, and when further updates will be provided, as well as contact information for flesh-and-blood spokespeople.

Third, your response should not only be rapid but also convey sincere concern for anyone victimized.  Humility and contrition, provided they’re genuine, can defuse anger and contain damage.

When warranted, the company shouldn’t hesitate to apologize – in the first person, with the active voice, and by a living, breathing individual.  But avoid fanning the flames with one of those infuriating non-apologies along the lines of “we’re sorry if anyone feels he or she was injured.”

Above all, the company should communicate as transparently and honestly as possible.  Nothing’s more dangerous – to say nothing of just plain wrong – than shading the truth or covering up information that should, and doubtless eventually will, come out.  To maintain credibility and trust, don’t speculate – if you don’t have the answers yet, say so.

By showing your sincere concern and determination to make amends, you reinforce your company’s reputation for responsible and ethical behavior. You also make it possible to turn an otherwise catastrophic situation into an opportunity to enhance your company’s image.

Fourth, acknowledge what happened but focus on the future.  People want to hear not only a sincere apology, but also an explanation of what you’re doing – or will do – to fix the problem and ensure that it never happens again.  The watchwords here are brevity and specificity – explain concisely and clearly what the company is doing to make things right with any injured party and to prevent any repetition of what happened.  Spell out your commitments in detail and, of course, follow through on them.

And finally, take time once the crisis is over to study what happened, assess the effectiveness of your response, and identify what parts of your plan did and didn’t work.  The military calls this exercise an AAR or “after-action review.” It’s essential if you want to learn from the experience and improve your planning for next time.

Crisis communications expert Gil Rudawsky cites a good recent example of a well-handled P.R. crisis.  Last August, Microsoft’s Outlook server crashed, leaving some users without e-mail for up to three days.  The company handled the mess in textbook fashion, sending all Outlook users a brief statement, written in the first person and signed by real human being, that apologized for the problem, explained simply and transparently what happened, and described in detail what Microsoft was doing to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again:

What other tips can you think of for limiting fallout from a P.R. bust-up?


Timothy Goodman is a corporate communications and public affairs executive with more than 25 years of experience working with a Fortune 50 pharmaceutical company, a start-up educational publishing firm, a grant-making foundation, and several non-profit think tanks.


Five tips for handling a P.R. disaster
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