It's a company's worst nightmare: a public relations crisis.
It could be a bad business decision made by the company or the way an employee treated a customer. It could possibly be something completely out of your control, such as changing public opinion or even a lie about your company. Your reputation and maybe even your business are in jeopardy. What do you do?
A crisis doesn't have to be the end of the world. If you react properly, your company can lessen the damage and come back from it. There are even proactive steps you can take in advance to be prepared for a potential crisis that will help you weather the storm if and when it happens.
Here are the top ten crisis management techniques to help you be prepared and ride out the problem.
1. Be quick
Time is of the essence. When something happens, make sure you get on top of it quickly.
When a business reacts slowly, there is a void in information, and the public and media are going to fill that lack of knowledge with their own narrative. The story the public grabs onto may or may not be true, but it doesn't matter. If you move slowly, by the time you finally get around to dealing with the issue, the story will already be written. Unwriting that narrative and getting the truth out will be much more difficult, if not impossible.
Facebook and its reaction to the Cambridge Analytica data gathering scandal is a perfect example of being slow to act. When it was revealed that the data of 87 million users was used without their knowledge in the 2016 election cycle, the company remained silent. When Facebook finally came out and addressed the issue, public sentiment had already turned sharply against them.
In contrast, when a plane landed nose-first at LaGuardia Airport in 2013, Southwest Airlines immediately jumped on social media with information and updates on the situation. This quick action put them in the driver's seat and showed not only that they cared about their passengers and the fears of their concerned loved ones but helped control the narrative.
If Southwest had waited, the public would have been left out of the loop not knowing what was going on. In this absence of information, the media could fill the airwaves and news with what-ifs, and people would use their imagination about worst-case scenarios. That type of situation can see blame cast, even before anyone knows what really happened.
2. Be honest
Growing up, your parents probably told you, "Honesty is the best policy." That's as true when handling crisis management as it was when you were a child.
When something goes wrong, be honest. Don't lie in an attempt to cover it up. You might get away with it for a while, but odds are the truth will come out and cause even greater damage to your reputation because you tried to conceal the real story.
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for companies to attempt to cover up or at least downplay their mistakes. In one of the most famous cases, Volkswagen was caught installing software that gave false records of emissions data on their cars. When the truth came to light, the company told the public it was a technology issue and not their fault. However, as the lies began to unravel, Volkswagen eventually admitted its wrongdoing and recalled thousands of cars. In addition to facing an investigation, fines, and compensation, the initial problem was compounded by their actions and greatly damaged Volkswagen's brand, reputation, and sales figures.
3. Have a plan ready
Don't wait until a crisis hits to have your response team in place. If you are prepared, you can lessen the damage and get out ahead of the problem.
Designate people within the company as those who will handle the situation and make sure they are trained and prepared. Have an emergency plan in place as to how you will deal with the issue, who will be involved, and what their areas of coverage are for various types of crises.
Put some thought into what type of problems your company might face, whether it's a disgruntled customer or a larger marketing or publicity issue. The types of problems you encounter may be specific to your industry or product or they could be more general issues.
You may even want to consider even having your company enact a simulation or a dry run of a potential crisis. Also, ensure you have a policy on employees discussing the issue with the media.
If it is within your budget, consider having a public relations company on retainer or at least have initial contacts in the crisis management industry. You don't want to have to be checking out different potential companies to assist you while you are buried in a problem or have to make a quick decision because time is of the essence.
4. Stay calm
It's important to be calm and stick to your crisis plan. Don't make knee-jerk reactions or decisions. If you have a plan and have thought things through, you will ride this out. Just follow the plan. When companies make decisions from a place of panic versus thought-out plans, that's when they tend to dig themselves into a deeper hole.
It's important that you don't freak out or worry about what might happen. You need to be calm and control the situation. If you follow the other suggestions on this list and have access to a good team of problem solvers, you will ride this out.
5. "Manage" the media
Sometimes when they are in the midst of a crisis, companies will simply say "No comment," leaving the media and the public in the dark about what is going on. Don't clamp down but make sure you are putting out a careful yet truthful message to the media. Don't turn the press into an enemy by ostracizing or offending them.
In lieu of information from you, the media will report what they know as well as what they don't know. This means they may float questions that haven't yet been answered. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the public is now curious about the knowledge that hasn't yet been revealed. The media isn't creating a false story, but the lack of information often leads the public to create their own narrative in a vacuum.
In your preparation, designate a company spokesperson who is trained to deal with the media in a friendly, informed, and respectful way. The spokesperson also needs to be prepared for some difficult questions. Have a policy in place that instructs your other employees to not answer questions from the media and direct inquiries to the company spokesperson.
6. Interact with your customers
Whether it's large or small, many crises come down to one thing: dissatisfied customers.
There are times when a bad decision in marketing offends a group, and the best way is to talk with them. With social media, it has become very easy not only for a complaint to go viral and spread around the world but for a company to reach out directly to a customer.
If it's a bad review that spirals out of control, reach out to the customer. You might be able to take care of the situation if you respond quickly enough before it grows too big. If nothing else, many customers and those in the public will see your efforts, understand that you are working to make amends, and give you the benefit of the doubt, especially if you have a positive track record.
In 2019, singer SZA posted on social media that she was discriminated against at a Sephora store when security was called on her. The posts lit up the Internet with accusations of racial bias against the chain. Sephora reached out to SZA directly on social media, telling her (and the public) that management was dismayed at the report and would not accept such practices. Soon thereafter, Sephora closed stores for diversity training and announced the actions on social media.
Sephora also did a deep study of their business practices and found there were other cases of racial bias in their stores and shared this discovery with the public. They pledged to find ways to overcome it through policy changes and training. While this was a case of a well-known celebrity, it is a prime example of how a company can reach out directly to the public, admit their wrongdoing and show they are making changes.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help
You may not be able to handle everything on your own and may need outside help. There are numerous companies that specialize in public relations crises and you can not only find one that specializes in your industry, but you might even find one that is experienced in your actual crisis situation.
You may also want to consider getting legal help before you deal with a crisis to make sure you are on stable statutory ground, as well as adhering to the law in your response to the crisis.
8. Make changes
If something is wrong, fix it. Fast.
Acknowledging that changes need to be made shows your stakeholders that you are a company that cares about them. Admit you can be better and are taking steps to achieve a higher level of quality. This will go a long way to alleviating any damage to your reputation.
Changes can be anywhere that the crisis demands. It might be the pulling of a marketing campaign that the public finds offensive or distasteful, the way employees interact with the public or your actual product.
In 1982, the nation was shocked as seven people died from Tylenol laced with cyanide. Johnson and Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, immediately jumped into action and not only pulled it from store shelves but implemented changes to their products by creating tamper-proof packaging. Their changes rippled through the entire industry and made drugs and packaging safe for everyone. Their response has been cited as a prime way to deal with a horrendous crisis, and it's believed that their actions not only saved the company but led to higher profits and public trust.
9. Stand your ground... if it's the right thing to do
There are times when your company is in the right, and the proper thing to do is to stand your ground. There have been cases where accusations against a company are unfounded and based on a personal vendetta or a cruel prank.
Just make sure that you are in the right and have the proof to back it up. This might also be the time to listen to the outside help you secured such as crisis management experts or legal counsel.
In 1993, several people reported that they found needles in their Diet Pepsi cans. The company immediately came out and stated publicly not only was this impossible but backed it up by showing the canning process. Pepsi also worked with the FDA to ensure the public its production process was safe. Eventually, security footage of someone inserting a syringe into an open can in a store was found and released, proving the claims were hoaxes. Pepsi was shown to be in the right. They had the truth on their side and refused to back down.
Again, make sure that you have the evidence to back up your stance. But if you are in the right, there is nothing wrong with holding your ground.
10. Accept responsibility
In addition to not telling the truth, there are companies that turn on their customers and try to blame them. This isn't a good approach and will usually do nothing more than make a company look like a corporate bully.
Some companies have even gone as far as threatening to sue customers who leave bad reviews. In most cases, this is not a good approach, and some states actually have laws against such practices.
United famously blamed a passenger who refused to deplane when he was chosen at random when the airline overbooked a flight. When the video of the incident went viral, the airline blamed the passenger instead of accepting responsibility for what they did. This caused an immediate uproar and damaged not only their public image but their stock prices.
Eventually, United reversed course, but a lesson can be learned from their actions. Take responsibility when you are in the wrong and work to quickly fix the problem.
The customer may not always be right, but it is a slippery slope when a business begins to blame them, especially when the company is at fault.