PR Crises: Defusing The Disaster

No publicity is bad publicity, right? If you’re in public relations (PR), you’ll beg to differ. PR crises are roadblocks that can appear from the most unexpected of places – a social media post, advertising campaign, customer complaint or even an innocent tweet. For brands, corporate apologies can sound insincere and a hasty way to vacuum the dust off a once-polished image. While companies may glide over a genuine mistake, actions that betray a brand’s values won’t go away unnoticed.

The good news is, scandals need not resort to resignations. While to err is human, how your company oversees the crisis draws the line between an uphill climb and downward spiral. Although the nature and severity of the situation are crucial facets that can decide a brand’s future, managing the firestorm as it happens is key to overcoming the obstacle ahead. Handled right, a crisis can also give your brand a profile boost.

With that in mind, we’ve identified some ways to help you navigate through a crisis (or crises)!

1. Communicate early, and to the right people

It’s a race against the clock, especially during an emergency. Responding prematurely signals the likelihood to backtrack on your words as new facts arise, while delayed answers lead to speculations that’ll spill over to tabloid news. It’s all about timing. Don’t address your stakeholders, employees, business partners and customers after the crisis has ridden out the storm, hoping the public treats it as yesterday’s news.

Be clear. Who needs to be notified when a problem strikes, and who is authorised to speak on behalf of the company? Relay proper protocol to all staff, stakeholders and partners to reinforce the line and responsibility of communication when faced with questions (from media and/or public) and avoid contradictory comments.

Prepare for backlash. By responding ‘no comment’ or providing no form of response only help others feed words into your mouth. Brushing aside curious questions may cause others to assume that a cover up is at play. Instead, be honest and provide reassurance that you’ll share the information as and when it becomes available.

2. Be proactive, not reactive

Name calling and finger pointing are emotions talking. Avoid fanning the flames with unwarranted external blame, or worse – arguing, posting or tweeting in public. Keeping your temperament in check during stressful circumstances can be tricky; knee-jerk responses only propagate the matter further. As a business leader, it’s crucial to assess the situation with a clear head, and focus on the public’s concerns to control the situation. Get the right message out through the best media channels, but more importantly, do consult with your PR team first before releasing any statement.

3. Take a stand

Is this the best position to take? Your decision will determine the company’s future responses and action plans. Rally your team together and ensure everyone’s on the same page.

In the case of Johnson & Johnson, the cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules became a case study for crisis management. With the number of fatalities and widespread panic over the extent of contamination, it looked impossible for the brand to regain its footing. Yet, quick thinking by the CEO, his transparency in dealing with the situation and the brand’s priority for consumer safety saved the pharmaceutical giant. The brand recalled pill orders across cities and implemented tamper-proof packaging for subsequent prescriptions.

Despite suffering significant monetary damage in the short run, the company took a firm stand, prioritising health and safety over profit loss. The consumer-first mindset and forthrightness in management ultimately renewed the trust in consumers.

4. Know how to apologise

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for some people. Even corporations at the top of the ladder don’t get it right the first time. Dove ran an advertorial depicting a woman of colour, miraculously transforming into a white lady after using its soap.

dove ad pic

Criticised for racism, here was how their apology went:

Dove screenshot

Despite past efforts to promote inclusivity in its campaigns, the advertorial was seemingly a blatant jab at racism. And the apology caused a bigger uproar with its vague messaging and lack of sincerity – for instance, what did ‘missed the mark’ refer to? A genuine apology demonstrates ownership, an understanding of public sentiment and the will to improve current practices.

Compare this with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) representatives who handled the Academy Awards gaffe like pros after announcing the “accidental winner” for best picture during the live telecast.

pwc apology

The straightforward apology contained all the important nuggets – from acknowledging who the affected parties were, explaining how the glitch occurred, to actions taken to rectify the problem. Now, that’s the way to dish out an apology!

While loyalty to your brand is admirable, being defensive and over-selling your brand’s core assets will only land you in boiling water. Think of the apology as a dance – do it with heart and others will be moved.

5. Take the empathy route

While the crisis is like a wound to your brand’s image, great public relation skills is the antiseptic you need to treat the cut. Avoid technical jargons and curt responses, and instead adopt a customer-first mindset.

Take a page from Singapore Airlines on their high-quality customer service. The airline went above and beyond by presenting gifts from luxury tea store, TWG to passengers when an in-flight entertainment system on a short-haul flight turned faulty. While the damage done may only be a dent to the airline’s reputable record, the company accedes that genuine remorse and substantive efforts go a long mile.

In the case of consumer brands, consider how the trouble caused had resulted to poor experiences for users. How can you make amends after the blunder? Remember, you’re dealing with actual people with real concerns and feelings. After you identify the affected parties, decide on the medium to reach them. Will a quick tweet or a well-thought out press release perform the job best?

6. Monitor the situation

Disaster struck. You executed a plan. What’s next? Monitor the coverage of your messages and be ready to improvise on your action plan, if necessary. The crisis may snowball or involve new individuals, so be ready to abort mission and begin from scratch.

Poor use of public relations acts as a sword that will wedge deeper cracks in your company. Instead, use the mightier pen to construct genuine apologies, reflect on wrongdoings and plan. Take our word for it, brilliant public relation tactics are the right arm to every successful business!

Posted by Nur Farzana, CorpMedia

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