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Updated Nov 08, 2023

PR Crisis? 6 Steps to Help Navigate the Storm

A PR crisis can be challenging to navigate, but these six steps can help your brand recover.

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Sammi Caramela, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Public relations is a concept every small business has to deal with at some point. Whether you’re responding to online reviews or just ensuring general customer satisfaction, if you run a business that deals with the public, you’re in the public relations business. Part of public relations is effectively handling negative news, events or reviews related to your business. 

Accidents happen. Problems pop up. Your business can never be fully safe from potential negative events that could affect your relationship with your customers. What’s important, however, is that you understand how to address these problems when they occur so you can mitigate damage and ensure your business weathers the PR storm.

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What is a PR crisis?

Most businesses will face a public relations crisis at one time or another. Whether it’s a string of bad reviews or 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. They will judge you based on 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. 

While there are some strategies you can implement to mitigate damage, once the information is out there, your business will have to roll with the punches and do its best to turn a wrong into a right.

Examples of a PR crisis

Two examples of PR crises come from two 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, the companies made mistakes that small businesses can learn from. For example, they tried to deflect the issue. Facebook claimed that “something happened,” rather than admitting responsibility, and Uber attempted to “move in a new direction,” as if solving the issue were that simple.

Insincerity is a major concern with these responses, especially when some of the damage is deeply rooted in discriminatory beliefs and unjust actions.

What effect does a PR crisis have on your business?

While a PR crisis’s effect may be difficult to determine at first, it will definitely affect your business in the long run. Customers and clients want to interact with businesses they trust. Investors want assurance that their investments will pay off. If your company is caught in a PR storm, it puts that trust in jeopardy. All stakeholders — employees, suppliers, customers and anyone you do business with — may start to wonder whether they should remain involved with your organization, and worker morale is likely to suffer.

If your response is not immediate and strong, social media can spread and exacerbate the issue. What happens next might be completely outside your control. A lack of a strong response will likely result in the escalation of false rumors and even endanger business relationships.

Facebook is a perfect example of this. The Cambridge Analytica PR crisis changed the way Americans viewed Facebook, and its data privacy issues play a major role in the company’s future relationship with new and existing customers.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
A public relations crisis threatens your brand reputation and can happen to any company. The best way to respond is with sincerity and genuine concern.

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. 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, crisis management expert and 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.

2. Devise a strategy, and brief your team.

Protocol is essential to the proper management of your crisis communications efforts. Sabina Gault, CEO of PR company Konnect Agency, 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,” Gault said. “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 communicate 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 director for the United Soccer League. “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 Starbucks’ handling of a 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, director of SEO strategy at Terakeet. It’s important to be patient while still being responsive, and sometimes, statements can hurt your brand reputation by helping search engines prioritize negative publicity.

“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 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 also important to 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 a study on Moz. 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. 

TipTip
An online reputation management service can help you maintain a positive image of your brand or repair the damage resulting from a PR crisis. See guide about choosing an online reputation management service.

6. Review and learn from the situation.

Once the crisis is over, conduct a post-action review. “Look at how well your staff and management handled the situation,” Nierman said. “Discuss what could have been done differently and what changes are necessary to prevent a similar situation.”

After a crisis, a company should focus on recovering its credibility. Shift the conversation to positive news from your brand.

What not to do during a PR crisis

Our experts also warned against PR mistakes. When you’re creating and executing your media response strategy, don’t do the following:

Lash out

Even if someone 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.

Offer “no comment”

Not having answers to potential questions is the worst thing you can do during a crisis, Nierman said. But sometimes, you truly can’t give a good answer with the information you presently have.

While our sources agreed that using “no comment” is better than making something up just to give an answer, it’s easy to see how this phrase can be misconstrued as an attempt 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.

Respond too quickly or too slowly

PR crisis management 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. 

Dwell 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, so 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 TakeawayKey takeaway
Do not lash out and blame others; address the situation by responding in a measured, sincere way; and learn from the incident.

Keep it real after a PR crisis

If we’ve learned anything from high-profile PR disasters, it’s that hiding, deflecting and making insincere statements do not fit the bill. Stakeholders want to know upfront that your organization understands the role it played, or is perceived to have played, in any PR crisis. They want to see you take responsibility and communicate about future prevention measures. 

“Getting ahead” of bad news may no longer be realistic, but it is possible to quickly shape and release statements that make it clear that your organization is being accountable and taking steps to resolve the current issue and prevent it from happening again. Brands must quickly acknowledge their part in any negative event and honestly tell stakeholders how they will improve.

An exception might occur when legal issues could be involved; in those cases, consult your legal team before issuing a response. If the crisis starts to get away from you, consult outside PR experts to help you devise a strategy to keep or regain stakeholders’ trust.

Ross Mudrick and Matt D’Angelo contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

author image
Sammi Caramela, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Sammi Caramela is a trusted business advisor whose work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others centers around creating digestible but informative guidance on all things small business. Whether she's discussing cash flow management or intellectual property, work trends or employer branding, Caramela provides actionable tips designed for small business owners to take their entrepreneurship to the next level. Caramela, who also lends her expertise to the financial outlet 24/7 Wall St., has business management experience that allows her to provide personal insights on day-to-day operations and the working relationship between managers and independent contractors. Amidst all this, Caramela has found time to publish a young adult novel, develop a poetry collection and contribute short stories to various anthologies.
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