A PR Crisis is a Rite of Passage. Here’s How to Deal With It.

We’re used to living with natural disasters in the Bay Area – and as PR people here, we see our share of PR disasters. Everywhere you look, companies are scrambling to attend to the latest employee misstep, leaked memo, tone deaf Tweet or corporate policy gone Uber wrong.

 

Over the last 15 years, we’ve guided my clients through every imaginable kind of crisis – from Senate inquiries and sexual harassment claims, to defective products, management shuffles and layoffs, leaked acquisition talks, broken product embargoes and even government bans.

 

Every successful business encounters a crisis (or several). If you’re faced with one, you’ll want experts and multiple confidantes to provide guidance through every step. The key to winning in a crisis revolves around a few key steps: preparation, speed of response, empathy towards those impacted by the crisis, transparency and business corrections.

But there’s one thing to make absolutely clear: PR Crisis equals Business Crisis. Whether small or explosive, they’re often simplified by the outside world as ‘PR problems,’ but that’s bullshit. They are business problems that need to be solved with business changes not PR responses.

 

An incredible PR team can definitely help you navigate a crisis, but that doesn’t solve the underlying issue. If the business, company culture or technology don’t evolve or create a more transparent environment, then you’re in for a long road.

So what happens when you do find yourself in one of those crisis scenarios. First, assess the damage….what threat level are you operating at?:

 

Level 1 – A few customer complaints have come through via email and/or social.

 

  • Action: Deal with the issue as quickly as possible. Either remedy the problem, refund the customer, or explain that you’re working on the issue…and then work on it!

    Show contrition. Fix the problem quickly.

Level 2 – The media has started asking questions about a particular problem.

 

  • Action: Assess the situation. Figure out how you will communicate what you are doing to fix the issue or clarify the situation.

    Don’t ignore the press. Ignoring means you have something to hide.

Level 3 – Media is now publishing stories about the issue.

  • Action: Analyze the press coverage. Check into the facts and understand if the problem is real. Deal with the problem – and then deal with the media.

    If the problem is fixed or being fixed, immediately contact the journalist or outlet and explain the situation and what is being done to fix it. If more than two days go by and the journalist or their boss (the editors) don’t respond, leave a comment in the comment section of the article.

Inform your stakeholders and employees. Let them know what’s going on before they tell you.  And tell them what your plan is to solve it.

Level 4– Viral spread of your crisis.

  • Action: Issue an official statement – one from the company to the press, and then a personal one that is distributed across relevant channels.Note that if you are a consumer product, and the crisis is a back-end business issue such as an employee lawsuit, there is no need to inform end consumers via social media. However you should issue a statement to all media covering the situation.

Level 5 – Extreme external pressure from investors, government inquiries and calls for regime change

 

  • Action: Interestingly enough, in the highest pressure situations, there is almost a sense of calm that comes over a good crisis expert. Almost an excitement of knowing what’s about to happen and predict it as it unfolds.It’s a time when I hear the lyrics of Sound of Silence overtake me with the word ‘Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gFnCwVqbWs 

A good Level 5 requires a few things:

  • Daily communication with your Board of Directors and PR counsel
  • Having a positive and welcoming disposition with government bodies or authorities (if they’re involved)The good news: depending on the severity of the issue, after the initial PR splash, governments often move slow. Authorities may make a lot of noise when they investigate an issue, but like a bad health diagnosis – they’ll freak out initially, but then get used to the new reality.
  • External monitoring of velocity of movements like #DeleteUber

Your final step, when the storm has passed, is to learn from your experience and do a post-crisis evaluation. Ask yourself what the company learned from this? What processes could have been put in place to avert or minimize it? How can the company fix its problems to avoid such a crisis in the future. If you expect ongoing crisis as a result of just the business you are in, you must accept the new reality and prepare your stakeholders for this as your business continues to grow.

Some additional resources when faced with a crisis:

 

Your first steps are the most critical

Regardless of the crisis, there are some universal steps to take. Media intelligence company Meltwater includes some of these best practices in their 10 Steps to Managing a PR Crisis:

 

  • Assemble & brief your Crisis Team: these are the execs, PR and social media leads, and customer-facing employees who will be on the front lines. Give them the status along with timelines and next steps on how/if/when they should communicate externally.
  • Get the full story: don’t react until you know those details. Ask a ton of questions. Determine how your response will impact your overall business.
  • Listen and watch: monitor social channels, your online community and the news media. What’s the noise level? You’ll be able to gauge how significant the crisis is by the size of the conversation.
  • Decide on your channels: depending on the situation and messaging you’ve created, figure out which medium(s) will be your best bet for delivery – company blog, social, press release distributed over a newswire, via a select reporter or a group of them, etc.

Your social gameplan

 

Thinking through your social media communication plan specifically is critical. Social monitoring company Hootsuite recommends to:

 

“Outline the exact steps everyone should take on social media—from top executives to the most junior employees. Include a list of who should be contacted at each stage of a potential crisis, and provide guidelines for how all employees are expected to communicate on social media.”

 

And they advise to act fast:

 

“Not using the real-time nature of social media to your advantage is where many companies stumble in a crisis. Social media offers a public forum to immediately acknowledge the situation while you work on fine tuning more in-depth communication… A simple message from a company acknowledging the issue and letting people know that more information is coming soon can help contain the negative sentiment around an issue and prevent it from spiraling out of control.”

 

Another bright light here: social media movements lose steam. They’ll trend for a day and two and then most likely, people will be on to the next crisis. Why? People have short attention spans.

 

This is why two of the most important groups to cater to are your Board and your team. Most companies and leaders understand issues will occur and are more interested in your response and your open line of communication.

 

According to Fortune: “Don’t forget about your employees. In a crisis, it’s common to focus on brand and trying to make sure that not too much external damage is done. But that crisis also has a huge impact on your own people—many of whom have had their faith shaken in their company’s values and are afraid for their own livelihoods.”

 

Meanwhile, be careful what you email your teams. Those memos are often leaked. Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t want to see published in Techcrunch.