Seven steps for avoiding (or managing) a PR crisis

The thing about PR crises is that they can come from anywhere. A disgruntled employee, an unhappy customer, a sophisticated hack of a company’s database – these things (and more) can trigger bad press, reputational damage, and, in some extreme cases, even lead to businesses closing down entirely.

But just because they can come from anywhere doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to prevent them. In Gerald Ratner’s case, it would have been as simple as not disparaging the company’s products and indirectly suggesting that customers idiots for buying them; in Tony Hayward’s case, it probably would have been better to avoid framing a catastrophic oil spill that killed 11 people and record numbers of infant dolphins as a largely personal tragedy.

Of course, the right steps to take aren’t always so obvious.

So how do you navigate a PR crisis? Follow these seven steps

  1. Tackle poor practices pre-emptively

Some excellent ways to avoid getting in trouble for treating staff unfairly, bungling a customer complaint, or not paying taxes is to treat staff fairly, handle customer complaints with grace and patience, and pay taxes.

Ethical businesses don’t get in nearly as much trouble as unethical ones. If you know that there are practices occurring in your business that don’t align with your values – or if not yours, then society’s – iron them out before they come back to hurt your company’s reputation. The good work that you do shouldn’t be undermined by bad behaviour, and it seldom has to be.

  1. Listen and learn

If someone’s upset with your brand, listen to them. It’s theoretically possible that you’ve done nothing wrong, they’re being ridiculous, and this will all go away as quickly as the feeling of satisfaction you get after eating a quarter pounder with cheese meal, but it’s unlikely – and you’ll never know unless you give them a fair hearing.

Listen, collect information via social media and other channels, and develop a good understanding of everybody who’s been impacted and how. Your official response should be dictated by this information.

  1. Don’t let a crisis get bigger than it needs to

As for your official response: you need one. Ignoring it will only make it bigger than it needs to be – and innocent brands don’t say ‘no comment’.

If a reporter gets in touch to gauge your response to the developing crisis, have something ready and don’t fob them off. Even if you don’t have an ‘official’ reaction yet, and you’re not yet prepared to issue an apology, say you’re aware of the situation and actively investigating it.

  1. Be transparent

When Volkswagen installed devices meant to help its vehicles cheat on emissions tests, the company made the scandal exponentially worse by lying about it. If you’ve been caught with your pants down, you’re not going to get away with it by pretending that your pants are up, or that actually, it’s a new way of wearing pants.

Just respond honestly and with complete transparency. The longer it takes for the truth to come out, the longer the story lives in the news cycle, and in the public memory. In an age of whistleblowing and ethical hacking, no company can expect to have secrets for very long; if yours have been suddenly exposed, be honest about them.


  1. Be emotionally aware

Compassion, empathy, and general emotional awareness will do your company more good than defensive hedging. Even if you’re legally in the clear, a PR crisis is an opportunity to take stock of what your customers feel about your brand – and work on ensuring that they have more positive experiences in future. A press release often won’t cut it.

Consider, for example, Tesla’s reaction to a death caused by a driverless vehicle: Elon Musk chose to tell the public that it shouldn’t be front-page news because human-driven cars cause more fatalities. This did not go over well because a person died, and a family was grieving – the right and wrong of it didn’t matter, and neither did the defensive crowing.

  1. Take responsibility

When JetBlue stranded thousands of passengers, it wasn’t just honest – although it was –  it was accountable. Though it could have argued that the bad weather wasn’t the company’s fault, it instead decided to take full responsibility, apologise, and even advise travellers of their rights and their easiest means of securing refunds.

Being accountable is better than scrambling to protect your company’s standing. Focusing on repairing the damage done and delivering good service will do more to protect your reputation than any rebuttal.

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

Many companies respond poorly to PR crises because they’re unprepared for them. You should therefore have a team in place to mitigate the potential damage to your brand and develop a clear response to unhappy customers and curious reporters.

This team should be able to work behind the scenes to gather information, define the problem, identify who’s been affected, assess the potential courses of action and help decide the best path forward.

A PR crisis will always wound your brand; whether it heals or scars depends entirely on how you react to it.


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