- A PR crisis occurs when negative events or reviews threditoraten to impact your brand reputation.
- Bad PR is likely at some point, but how your company responds can determine how detrimental the impact becomes.
- These six tips can help you navigate a PR crisis, limit the damage to your brand and emerge the other side unscathed.
- This article is for small business owners interested in strengthening and protecting their brand reputation.
Public relations is a concept every small business has to deal with at some point. From online reviews to general customer satisfaction, if you run a business that has to deal with the public, you’re in the public relations business. Part of public relations is effectively dealing with negative news and events related to your business. Accidents happen. Problems pop up. Your business can never be fully safe from potential negative events that could impact your relationship with your customers. What’s important, however, is understanding how to handle these problems when they occur, so you can mitigate damage and ensure your business weathers the PR storm.
What is a PR crisis?
Most businesses will face a public relations crisis at one time or another. From a string of bad reviews to a serious executive scandal, a negative incident can have a powerful impact on a company's reputation. No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect you to be human – and that shows in the way you handle such instances.
A PR crisis is when any negative event or review related to your business gains traction in the public sphere. It could be related to an unhealthy business practice, a customer accident at your location, or an internal, employee-related issue. PR crises are important because they can taint your small business’s image in the minds of your customers. What’s more important to understand about PR crises: You likely can’t control their outcome. While there are some strategies you can implement to mitigate damage, once the information is out there, your business is going to have to roll with the punches and do its best to turn a wrong into a right.
Example of a PR crisis
Two examples of PR crises come from two of America’s most well-known companies: Facebook and Uber.
Facebook had to deal with data privacy issues related to Cambridge Analytica, which may have affected the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Uber struggled with internal issues regarding sexual harassment and hostile work environments. In both cases, each company made mistakes that small businesses can learn from.
For example, these companies did their best to acknowledge the issue, like when Facebook claimed that "something happened," rather than something was done (by them). Or when Uber attempted to pave a smoother path, to "move in a new direction," as if solving the issue were that simple.
Insincerity is a major concern with these apologies, especially when some of the damage is deeply rooted in discriminatory beliefs and criminal actions. At times, it seems that all these companies are doing is sweeping the issue under the rug and hoping society forgets it ever existed.
Key takeaway: A PR crisis threatens your brand reputation and can happen to any company. Sincerity and genuine concern is the best way to respond.
What effect does a PR crisis have on your business?
While a PR crisis’s effect may seem intangible at first, it will definitely affect your business in the long run. Customers and clients want to interact with businesses they trust. If your company is caught in a PR storm, it puts that trust in jeopardy. While at first the issue may seem simple or small, if the PR crisis isn’t handled properly, it can grow into a major issue.
Facebook is a perfect example. The Cambridge Analytica PR crisis changed the way Americans viewed Facebook. For instance, while over half of America’s teens are using Facebook, it no longer dominates the teen social media landscape. While other technologies and platforms can account for this change, Facebook’s data privacy issues play a major role in the company’s future relationship with new and existing customers.
Key takeaway: PR crises can have a material impact on your ability to do business. Limiting the fallout related to a PR crisis is essential to surviving and rebuilding brand reputation.
How to handle a PR crisis
Every business should have a PR crisis team and plan in place. Business News Daily asked experts what to do – and not to do – if your company finds itself in the middle of a PR crisis. Here are six tips to navigate the storm.
1. Appoint a response team
Your business should already have a response team in place before a crisis even hits. However, during a controversy, you'll want to appoint a response team quickly to ensure the right people are speaking on behalf of your company.
"It's important that the organization is able to react fast and speak with one voice, which is difficult to achieve when multiple people begin to speak on its behalf," said Evan Nierman, founder of Red Banyan.
He said the most effective teams are made of both in-house professionals who have inside knowledge of the company and external experts who can see that situation from a journalistic perspective.
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2. Devise a strategy and brief your team.
Protocol is essential to the proper management of your crisis communications efforts. Sabina Gault, CEO of Konnect Public Relations, said each member of your response team should understand their responsibilities and know whether to take a proactive or reactive approach in their media coverage of the incident.
"Whatever the strategy is, the company must relay protocol to any and all persons who could be approached to speak on their behalf," said Gault. "This means informing all employees, stakeholders, board members, etc., of who is to be speaking with [the] media and how they are to direct any inquiries. This will save the company from having to explain comments from any unofficial company representatives later."
3. Craft your message
Once you and your team have gathered all the facts about the incident, you should agree on how you will frame your response. Think about the most transparent way to address the situation and what your company has done or will do about it – without placing external blame.
"The best way to handle a crisis is to just be open and honest with your audience," said Joe Culotta, communications manager for the Hispanic Leadership Fund. "The sooner you apologize and admit your mistake, the sooner people can forgive you. Also, the faster you handle the problem, the sooner people will stop trashing you on social media."
Culotta referred to how Starbucks handled their recent scandal as a prime example of what to do: Apologize right away, take responsibility for the occurrence, and make it clear that it won't happen again.
"If the company has a large following on social media, make it more personal by having the president or CEO of the company apologizing for their mistake," he said. "The more visual you could be, the better."
However, in some instances, it may be better not to release a statement, said Bill Pinkel, account director at Reputation Management. It's important to be patient while still being responsive, and not to make too many statements.
"Often, it is better to say nothing in response to a crisis," he said. "In legal situations where an apology is an admission of guilt, an apology won't slow down the blowback from a story. A press release can flood the internet with content on the crisis topic, [which] tells search engines it is a prevalent topic [and] could make cleaning up a company's online reputation more difficult."
4. Identify and address the affected parties
You should identify the people who need to know about the situation, such as employees, stakeholders, business partners, customers and the media. Gault noted that the audience will depend on the context of the situation, but regardless of who's receiving your message, you should make sure it is sent out in a timely manner.
Pinkel suggested sending messages or a press release to known and friendly press contacts who are likely to portray the story in a fair or favorable light. But media outlets are quick to pick up stories once they break, so you should have prepared statements and press releases ready to go before you're approached by reporters.
5. Monitor the situation
Assessing your brand's image is especially important following a PR crisis. You will need to keep an eye on inbound and outbound communications to address follow-up questions or concerns.
"It's necessary to exercise extreme caution and care when dealing with customers and partners," said Morgan Mathis, vice president at Highwire PR.
It's important to also track what people are saying about your company online. Companies are at risk of losing 22 percent of their business with just one negative article on the first page of search results, according to Reputation Management. Look at Google images, online review sites, social media platforms and even your own website for any negative, user-generated content.
"A key component of effective crisis communications is understanding what various audiences and stakeholders are saying about an organization at any given time," said George Sopko, vice president of Stanton.
He suggested establishing monitoring systems that quickly uncover negative trends before they become a bigger problem and migrate to the media.
Sopko also recommended monitoring the company's brand and crisis keywords, influencers and competitors.
6. Review and learn from the situation
Once the crisis is over, Nierman suggests conducting a post-action review.
"Look at how well your staff and management handled the situation," he said. "Discuss what could have been done differently and what changes are necessary to prevent a similar situation."
In an infographic on the topic, Reputation Management recommended focusing on recovering your credibility after a crisis. Shift the conversation to positive news from your brand.
Key takeaway: When a PR crisis occurs, devise a strategy and adhere to it. Address the problem sincerely and own responsibility. Implement actionable solutions and continue to learn from the incident.
What not to do during a PR crisis
When creating and executing your media-response strategy, our expert sources warned against the following tactics.
Even if the opposing party has said something completely false about your company, it is never a good idea to respond negatively or blame the complainant for the situation, Mathis said.
"You need to think strategically and put any emotions on the back burner," she added.
Offering "no comment"
Not having answers to potential questions is the worst thing you can do during a crisis, said Nierman. But, sometimes, you truly can't give a good answer with the information you presently have.
While using "no comment" is better than making something up just to give an answer (which our sources agreed is never the right choice), it's easy to see how this phrase can be misconstrued as trying to cover up or avoid an issue. If you don't have enough information to give a solid response, say so, and assure the person asking that you will issue a statement when you have more details.
Responding too quickly or too slowly
Handling a PR crisis is all about timing. You don't want to give a premature response before you have all the facts, Gault said. Having to backtrack or contradict previous statements later could further damage your reputation. Delaying your response time won't do you any favors either.
Dwelling on the situation
Mathis reminded business owners that the news cycle is short, and the situation will almost certainly blow over. A period of "bad" press is often just a hiccup on your path to success – you shouldn't let it completely distract you from running your business. People can forgive and forget your mistake, but they won't forget how you conducted yourself in the process, she said.
"Always remember to use good taste, no matter how bad [the outlook] seems," Mathis said. "It's important to handle the situation the right way."
Key takeaway: Do not lash out and blame others. Address the situation by responding in a measured, sincere way. Move on from the incident and learn from it.
Additional reporting by Matt D'Angelo, Saige Driver and Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.