Contrary to public opinion, a PR pro’s job is not just schmoozing with the media, hanging out at TV stations and hosting swanky events. Our job often involves preparing clients for the unexpected and providing critical crisis communications counsel. More often than not, it is a high-stress and high-stakes job.
Since the very nature of a crisis insinuates that it is typically unexpected and out of your control, attempting to manage it can be daunting. While a crisis can certainly be detrimental to your company’s reputation, the way you handle it is arguably more critical and can make or break your brand.
Although the majority of crises can’t be prevented, they can be prepared for in advance and effectively managed. Here are six tips for dealing with sticky situations:
Having a plan in place is essential for successful crisis management. Although it seems counter intuitive to plan for something unexpected, it can save your team a lot of time, confusion and stress in the heat of the moment.
Develop an approved protocol and action plan to be activated in the event of a crisis. It should specifically outline the internal communication and approval process, as well as the chain of command. This includes determining the following:
- Who on your team needs to be notified of a crisis and in what order
- Who is in charge of the crisis communications efforts on your team
- Who is approved to communicate updates to your team
- Who is the approved media spokesperson
- Who is the ultimate decision maker that has final approval when it comes to crisis management decisions
Depending on your industry and type of business, specific types of crises may be more likely than others. Spend some time thinking about potential landmines your company might face. Although it’s not pleasant to envision, what situation would be your worst nightmare? For example, if you’re a restaurant owner, this could be something like an E. Coli outbreak or something unappealing being found in your food — think of the recent Chipotle crisis or the fingernail that was found in Taco Bell nachos. Crazier things have happened. Once you’ve identified potential crisis situations that could affect your business, outline how you would handle them. Develop key messaging that could be customized for each specific scenario and used, if needed, down the road.
Control the Message
The core of crisis communication is in the message and delivery. In the event of a negative situation involving your brand, it is imperative that you respond quickly, truthfully, thoughtfully and empathetically. It is human nature to be defensive and emotional in the midst of a crisis, but take the time to get your facts straight, understand the issue and craft an appropriate response. Always be honest and transparent. Acknowledge the incident and your company’s role in it. Sympathize with those affected and do everything in your power to make it right.
Avoid Social Media Mishaps
As part of your crisis communications plan, you also should have your social media protocol clearly outlined. Canceling scheduled posts should be one of the first steps in the event of a crisis. Nothing appears more insensitive than a scheduled post being pushed out to promote one of your offerings or services when your brand is embroiled in a crisis. Your social media posts should be limited to statements addressing the crisis and thoughtful responses to your fans’ comments and concerns. No matter what, don’t engage in a heated online debate or defensively respond to accusatory comments.
Once the dust has settled, take the time to objectively assess the situation and how you handled it. What was done well and what could have been done better? What did you learn and what changes should be made to your crisis communications plan to help better prepare for future issues? Be honest with yourself and look at the shortfalls as opportunities for improvement the next time around.
After you’ve recapped the crisis and your management of it, start the recovery process by identifying ways to shed a positive light on your brand. What good stories can be told about your company? Whether it is a heroic act or gesture of good will that arose from the crisis, or something completely unrelated to the crisis that had a positive impact on the community, publicizing your company’s good news will help push down any negative coverage in search results.
Crisis communications is serious business, but if handled well the damage to your brand can at worst be mitigated and at best result in positive coverage. A great recent instance of turning a PR nightmare into positive press is Crockpot’s response to the This is Us tragedy. Rather than reacting rashly and defensively, Crockpot capitalized on the opportunity of having its brand in the limelight and used sympathy, creativity and humor to respond to and educate the show’s fans. The brand was applauded for its response and came out of the predicament looking like a hero rather than a villain.
When in doubt about how to handle or recover from a crisis, your best course of action is to consult a professional. Having a PR team on-hand and a plan in place for crisis communications are both good precautions to safeguard your brand. An ongoing PR strategy also can be especially effective in rebuilding a damaged brand.