On this month’s profile, we are talking with none other than Gini Dietrich, Founder, CEO,…
When a PR crisis arises, your first instinct may be to shut the situation down. Unfortunately, panicking won’t lead to better outcomes – though it can make the situation worse. And while prevention is the best crisis strategy, it won’t help you when disaster strikes. That’s why it’s crucial to understand how to avoid and mitigate a public relations crisis before one occurs.
What is Public Relations?
Public relations is just that – your tactic for relating to, and handling, the public. In other words, it’s how companies interact with their consumers, partners, and the public at large.
But modern PR is so much more than talking to individuals. From media and customer relations to the intersection of PR and marketing, there’s a lot to understand about PR strategy. No longer is PR about interacting with (or avoiding) the public. It’s about presenting a unified brand image, pushing positive news, and mitigating crises as they occur.
What is a PR Crisis?
A PR crisis occurs when an event, review, or public outcry threatens your brand reputation. Problems can arise for many reasons, including:
- Unhealthy or environmentally damaging business practices
- Major accidents or on-the-job deaths
- Internal scandals, such as executive harassment claims
- Legal issues like tax fraud
- A string of negative reviews (true or false)
Essentially, when your business acts in ways that are illegal, immoral, or antithetical to your brand’s mission, you have a PR crisis on your hands.
How Can a PR Crisis Affect Your Business?
Once a crisis arises, it can taint your business’ image, which may lead to financial, social, or legal repercussions. After all, customers, clients, and partners want to interact with companies they trust. If you get caught in a PR whirlwind, you may lose this trust in an instant.
And poorly handled crises – even a misspoken phrase on a bad day – can become a bigger issue leading to:
- Lost business
- Deflated sales
- Reneged-upon contracts and business partners
- And legal woes
Unfortunately, bad PR is almost inevitable. All you can do is learn how to avoid and mitigate a public relations crisis now, so you have the tools at hand when they matter most.
How to Avoid and Mitigate a Public Relations Crisis in 10 Steps
A PR crisis can happen to anyone. The key is having a plan in place to handle the fallout if the worst comes to worst.
1. Be an Ethical Company
The best way to avert a crisis is to avoid one in the first place. That’s even easier if you’re an ethical, moral, law-abiding company from the get-go.
By working within the law, promoting positive company culture, and pushing a truthful narrative about your company, you can cultivate public goodwill. In other words, be authentic, avoid overpromising, and aim to overdeliver.
If you accomplish these goals, the public will rally behind you because they believe in you.
2. Have a Response Team Ready to Go
Unfortunately, even being an ethical, law-abiding company only gets you so far. When the inevitable PR crisis does arise, having a PR team in place makes it easier to rectify the situation with minimal backlash.
These individuals can help you sidestep issues before they blow out of proportion. Then when an incident does occur, they can step in to unify your message and nullify the risk of sending out conflicting or incorrect information.
One point to remember when building your PR team is to have a network of both inside and external experts. In doing so, you can merge the working knowledge of your company with an outside perspective to tackle the issue on all fronts.
Additionally, once you have experts in place, it’s crucial to defer to their judgment when you’re in the thick of it. Otherwise, you risk letting your emotions overcome the situation.
3. Devise and Communicate Your Strategy
Your PR team should help you design and follow protocols to manage many types of crises. One of the most critical elements of any strategy is communication – both to your employees and the public. Every member of your organization should understand their role, from directing or answering media inquiries to interacting through your social media content.
Setting a communication strategy upfront accomplishes several goals, including:
- Preventing negative or incorrect information leaking
- Minimizing backtracking on ill-informed statements
- Ensuring your employees don’t prioritize opinions over facts
In the end, this ensures that you only have one voice speaking for your organization.
4. Take Time for a Fact-Finding Mission
Just as conveying several viewpoints can damage your PR mission, so, too, can presenting false or incomplete facts. Broadcasting inconclusive or partial data will only worsen your situation.
This often crops up in situations where executives feel the need to get ahead of the rumor train. But that can lead to giving wrong information, which looks worse in media reels down the line. Instead, it’s better to identify all facets of the issue and present complete information in a unified voice than rushing an explanation.
When dealing with a PR crisis, it’s best to avoid making statements that turn out to be untrue, even if they were accurate to the best of your knowledge at the time. Rather, focus on structuring a compelling, honest response – even if that means admitting you don’t have all the facts.
5. But at the Same Time, Be Swift!
While taking time to compile the whole truth is crucial, you should do so swiftly. Your PR team can run media interference while your internal team ensures the problem doesn’t get away from you. While each case is different, you’ll often maintain more control the sooner you act.
At the same time, you usually don’t want to deny the story if the media has already caught on. Instead, remain transparent by sharing what you know and admitting where the gaps lie. While you may face accusations of hiding information, the public will judge you more favorably for not advancing a lie, intentional or not.
6. Identify Who Needs to Know
During or after your fact-finding mission, you should identify who needs to know – and to what degree. For instance, you may want to inform your:
- Business partners
- Customers and clients
- And the media
Bear in mind that you may not want to share all information with everyone, at least not at first. Instead, focus on disseminating information on the advice of your PR team.
7. Craft and Communicate Your Message
Once you’ve gathered the facts and identified who needs to know, it’s time to start sharing with the public. But first, you should craft a response that’s honest, apologetic, and allows you to move forward with confidence and the public’s goodwill.
You may start by sending a press release to a friendly media contact who will portray the story fairly. Be sure to explain how your company has or will address the situation without placing external blame. If the company has an online following, an executive statement can curry public favor.
But sometimes, it’s better to say nothing at all, especially in legal cases where an apology serves as an admission of guilt. While your organization may take a public thrashing, that’s better than incurring a hefty judgment against your business.
The moral of the story is this: be open and honest when you can. And if you can’t, err on the side of silence. The sooner you admit and apologize for your mistake, the sooner you’ll receive forgiveness. (And the sooner people will stop trashing you on social media.)
8. Take Advantage of Online Tools
Social media, outreach emails, and other digital tools can help you avoid or mitigate public fallout during a crisis. Deploying a team of trained crisis handlers to your marketing teams can help you unify behind a single message. Remember to respond with politeness and sincerity. Now is not the time to go ape on your haters!
And if you feel the need to add more prongs to your pitchfork, there are plenty of other tools on the table. For instance, an email lookup tool can help you contact the proper people, reach out to the right specialist and write to those well researched journalists that will help you. When you properly combine PR and SEO with marketing, your chance of success rises astronomically.
9. Monitor Events as They Unfold
As the situation continues to play out, assessing your brand’s image following a PR crisis is crucial. You may keep an eye on:
- Inbound and outbound communications
- Social media
- Review websites
- Google images
- And even your website
In the process, you’re looking for chances to address concerns, answer follow-up questions, and monitor negative reviews. Remember: it takes only one negative article on the first page of results to lose a lot of business!
10. Learn from the Situation
Once the crisis passes, you may conduct a post-crisis review to gain insights into your strategy’s effectiveness. Discuss strong points or places for change and focus on insights that enhance your credibility. Don’t forget to ask tough questions like:
- How could you have prevented the crisis?
- How well did your team respond to the situation at every level?
- What improvements can you make to better address future problems?
- How can you curry goodwill with the public?
Additionally, you may want to shift any future media on your company toward uplifting conversation. Sharing positive news, long-awaited changes, and how your efforts to improve are succeeding can help you move past the incident faster.
What NOT to Do During a PR Crisis
We’ve covered how to avoid and mitigate a public relations crisis above. But you should also know what not to do.
1. Lash Out at the Media, Your Haters, or Your Accusers
On the list of PR strategies that work on social media, lashing out at your community doesn’t make the cut. It’s never a good idea to blame your complainant(s), respond with negativity, or wear your emotions on your sleeve during a crisis. That holds even if an accusing party is being completely dishonest.
2. Offer “No Comment”
We discussed above the importance of finding all the facts before you present them to the public. Unfortunately, that’s not going to stop consumers and the media from having questions. In those instances – when you’re trying to find answers and minimize fallout – it can be tempting to respond with a flippant “no comment.”
But that can be almost as bad as giving an incomplete or misinformed answer. In today’s world, it’s easy to misconstrue the statement as an attempt at diversion or coverup. Instead, state that you don’t have the answers and reassure the questioner that you’ll issue more information as it comes to light.
3. Move with Overdue or Undo Haste
We’ve established that fact-finding is essential – but you also don’t want to wait too long. At the same time, moving too quickly leaves room for errors, misinformation, and backtracking to contradict prior statements. Your PR crisis team should be well-equipped to help you balance speed with due diligence in every situation.
4. Be Insincere
Insincerity sits beside “no comment” when it comes to stoking public furor. While offering a genuine apology is a great step, apologizing to get the public off your back is a poor tactic.
This is another reason to work with an external PR team, too: to gauge the public perception of your response. Insincerity – especially if criminal or discriminatory charges are on the line – can look like you’re sweeping the issue under the rug.
5. Dwell on Your Mistakes
Resilience is an underrated PR skill that can serve you well during a crisis. Most situations blow over with time (and a little expert strategy). “Bad” press usually doesn’t last more than a few weeks – and you shouldn’t let a hiccup detract from your success.
And remember: people will forgive and forget all but the most egregious mistakes. But they won’t forget how you conducted yourself in the process.