Most businesses will face a public relations crisis at one time or another. From a string of bad reviews to an executive scandal, a negative incident can have a powerful impact on a company's reputation.
Every business should have a PR crisis team and plan in place, because how your businesses responds to these situations can have a lasting effect on your company. Business News Daily asked public relations experts about what to do – and not to do – if your company finds itself in the middle of a PR crisis.
1. Appoint a response team
To prepare for the worst, 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," Gault told Business News Daily. "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 on down the line."
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 honest and transparent way to address the situation and what your company has done or will do about it – without placing external blame.
"If you made the mistake, own up to it and be clear about next steps and how you plan to move on," said Morgan Mathis, vice president at Highwire PR.
"Note the scope of the emergency, what was done to prevent it, how it is being remedied and what is being done to ensure it does not happen again," Gault added.
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. Mathis and Gault emphasized the importance of keeping in tune with community reactions and reaching out where appropriate.
"It's necessary to exercise extreme caution and care when dealing with customers and partners," Mathis said.
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 find negative trends before they become a bigger problem and migrate to the media.
Sopko also recommended monitoring the company's brand and crisis key words, 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.
What not to do
When creating and executing your media-response strategy, our expert sources warned against the following tactics.
Lashing out. 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 on 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."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.