By Kenneth Hitchner, Public Relations & Social Media Director
Imagine this potential real-life-scenario. You’re sitting at your desk, enjoying your morning cup of Joe, when you receive a phone call from a reporter at a major daily newspaper saying, “A devastating accident just took place at one of your plants and I hear there are casualties.”
First, take a deep breath. You’ve just sunk waist deep into a pile of reputation quicksand that has the potential to turn into a full-blown
public relations (PR) crisis. How you respond could affect how your organization is viewed within the industry and outside of it. Once a reputation is tarnished, it can be a long, difficult struggle to regain your customers’ and the public’s trust.
Some of the
biggest 2017 PR crises can teach us a thing or two about what not to do during a PR crisis. One of the major ones, which I’m sure you can readily recall, was United Airlines’ removal of a passenger. After videos of that passenger being aggressively dragged off an overbooked plane circulated on the internet, United’s stock plummeted. At first, United stood by the forceful removal of the passenger, but then issued a cold apology from the company’s CEO. After powerful criticism and threats, United took full responsibility and made the apology, which it should have made immediately after the incident. By this point, it was too late for consumers and the public to be satisfied. United’s consumer perception dropped to a 10-year low following this incident and the company’s handling of it. That sincere apology should have been made during the immediate aftermath of the episode. Nearly one year after that crisis, United had another incident when a dog died inside an overhead bin last month. This time, United immediately assumed full responsibility for the tragedy and apologized.
How can your businesses adequately prepare for a public relations crisis , to avoid backlash?
I cannot stress this enough—remain calm. Ask the reporter to explain exactly what’s going on, from the beginning of the story. You need to understand everything that has led the reporter to pick up the phone and call you. These situations often seemingly come out of nowhere and there’s no shame in asking questions to clarify the acquisitions. Do not offer any statements during the call, just collect the information and let the reporter know you will be looking into this and then responding.
Be cognizant of timing. Newspaper reporters work under hourly and daily deadlines. I recommend working with a public relations professional, to help you craft an appropriate timeline and response.
Your thoughts will probably be racing, as you struggle to compile enough information to construct a coherent understanding of what’s going on. That is completely understandable, under the circumstances.
To help guide you through the process, here are the steps you can follow:
Examine the 5 Ws: Be methodical as you set out the facts. Who made this statement? Was it one person or multiple people? When did they say it? Was it today, last week or last month? Where did they say it? At a press conference, to a colleague or to a reporter? Why did they say it? Everyone has different motivations for speaking out. Is this person trying to score political points in a close election race? Are they out to deliberately sabotage your brand? Or did they perhaps misspeak about something they don’t quite understand? Whatever the reason, lay out the facts as you know them.
Confer with Trusted Advisors: You are battling a whirlwind of emotions and struggling to remain calm. Surround yourself with a small group of people whom you trust and outline the situation—either via phone or in person. Get their thoughts and input on the situation. It’s important to include your public relations professional in this process.
Outline How You Will Respond: If the allegations are false, lay out why they are false and back up your explanations with facts, not opinion. Make sure you stay “on message.” In other words, devise two or three key points before you call the reporter—and then repeat them again and again, to reinforce your side of the story. Remember that the reporter has no personal stake in this issue. He or she is just out to collect and report all sides of the story.
Respond: Be firm and factual, not defensive. You have every right to be angry if your business has been accused of unethical, even illegal, behavior. But keep your feelings private. Spokespeople who come off as defensive, often appear as though they are hiding something. Your goal is to outline the situation in a calm and rational way.
Public relations debacles are bound to hit every business at some point. How you respond to criticism will speak volumes. Make sure your response is calm, well-thought-out and based on facts, not opinion or emotion. A polished and reasoned response will reflect a poised, thoughtful and honest brand and business.
Is your business prepared for a public relations crisis? Do you have a public relations team in place, that you can call on, if a crisis were to strike your business? Do you have an interesting story to tell on this topic? Please share it in the comments below.
Kenneth Hitchner is the Public Relations and Social Media Director at CMA, an award-winning, full service marketing agency that builds reputation, relationships and return on investment. To ensure that you are successfully promoting your brand, it would benefit you to work with professionals who are experts in public relations. CMA can help! Contact us at 800-852-4269 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org .