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Building a brand isn't easy. Establishing a strong online presence and targeting just the right audience takes careful management and a lot of time. Cultivating that public image is key to your brand's success, and once you have mastered the art of online PR, you may feel your image is airtight. Yet even the tightest-run PR engine is vulnerable to the occasional public snafu.
So what happens in the event of a bad PR situation? Once you resist the urge to hide under your desk until it passes, we'd like to reassure you that there are tried and true ways to address a PR disaster. Here are seven effective ones to use in most situations.
Although it may seem overly cautious, long before the first public image emergency rears its ugly head, you should ensure that the company has a plan in place to manage such occurrences. When an unexpected crisis emerges, it helps to know that each team member is organized, calm, cool, collected, and knows the appropriate response.
One creative approach is to run crisis management simulations as part of regular staff training. There's probably no better way (other than an actual PR emergency) to test how your people will respond.
You don't want to be assigning response roles for the first time in the midst of unfurling bad publicity. There's a better chance to control the chaos if each person is aware of exactly what task they are in charge of to remedy the situation. Otherwise, you risk multiple people trying to do the same thing while something else gets ignored completely — not a good way to limit damage. Make sure each person has a clear task. Better yet, if it's in writing and resembles a checklist covering every eventuality.
In a PR crisis, communication is vital. Reach out quickly to customers, the public, and colleagues alike. Send out a company-wide brief detailing PR crisis protocols and social media best practices. If the crisis involves a sensitive issue, you'll want to make sure employees know how much information to share and how much to keep to themselves.
Additionally, contacting shareholders and investors is a good idea. You want them to feel confident that the situation is well in hand. And always keep good records of your movements so that you've got an up-to-date log of events that have occurred (this is important for legal purposes, just in case).
When a crisis hits, a sometimes intuitive ostrich-style response is to put off dealing with it until the worst of the damage has blown over. According to PR experts, this is a big mistake. Don't procrastinate. By responding to a bad PR situation within even a few hours of its appearance, you can clear up misinformation and stave off further damage.
For example, there has been a seemingly permanent uptick in cybersecurity breaches in recent years. Small businesses are especially vulnerable. If you find that hackers can access and post from your social media and public profiles, the best approach isn't to wait for them to get bored. Instead, counter any false information and fake posts with real information as quickly as possible. And, of course, get someone on the case to stop the breach immediately.
Never talk down to your audience, or try to evade questions about the problem. If you want the public to remain on your side in a bad PR situation, the best approach is to respond with empathy, humility, and honesty. If your company did something wrong, admit it, and communicate the situation with transparency.
Saying sorry for what you've done wrong makes your company appear human and relatable and indicates that you have nothing to hide. The humility required to admit mistakes can also serve as a guidepost to adjust policies or revisit past approaches to complex situations.
And by the way, if you're interested in good and bad stories of real-world responses to bad PR, Christmas came early for you this year.
Whether you choose to designate a company representative to speak on behalf of the whole organization or bring in the boss, make sure you have a capable person on hand to address the public.
Bringing in the boss can have its advantages, as it shows that the issue is being dealt with at the very highest level. Just make sure that whoever will be speaking is well-briefed on company policies and is familiar with the crisis management plan's details.
In the event of a PR disaster, nothing is more powerful than reminding the public of what you do well in the first place. Override the damage of a bad publicity nightmare by emphasizing your strengths. Bring back popular elements from successful PR campaigns from the past. Accentuate the areas where your company thrives. And if you can respond to the crisis in a consistent way with the brand values and objectives that make your company so appealing to begin with, then even better.
That way, you can use a bad PR moment to your advantage, transforming a crisis into a good publicity opportunity. Though the era that spawned the "all publicity is good publicity" way of thinking might be over, it's probably worth thinking about a little at least.
Generally, the best approach to mitigating a bad PR situation is to be firm and consistent. Once you choose a strategy, keep going in that direction. Stick with your predetermined plan. If your company representatives appear to be spouting contradictory messages or trying to move the narrative in different directions, you will confuse the public, and that's not a good thing.
And if you keep circling back and making changes to your stance, it will seem like your company is poorly organized, have something to hide, or are just plain incompetent. Instead, maintain a clear and constant line of approach, reassuring customers, shareholders, and the public that you can deal with unexpected situations with resilience and clarity.
Originally published on November 4th, 2020, last updated on June 22nd, 2022.