Any company, big or small, can be caught off guard by an unexpected public relations firestorm. The recent Starbucks PR nightmare underscores how quickly a company’s reputation can become tarnished–regardless of whether it did anything overtly wrong. It also shows how being prepared for the unexpected can help you head off a backlash that could spell death for your brand.
Here are a few simple points to help your brand survive a PR crisis.
- Be accountable
Acknowledge from the beginning that an issue exists or that a mistake has been made, and accept responsibility for that issue or crisis.
Start by researching the facts of the issue or crisis. You need to know exactly what you are accepting responsibility for, so that your message to the public can be both clear and immediate. Think in the consumers’ POV as you research and craft your message.
It may seem unfair and demoralizing to take the blame for a crisis that resulted from a mistake or an innocent situation, as was also the case with H&M’s “coolest monkey in the jungle” ad. Your message, however, is your chance to rise above the issue and to show the world that you are capable of turning a potentially crippling negative situation into a positive.
- Act fast
In the digital age, information spreads faster than you can blink. And just as quickly, reporters will come calling, texting and emailing with the tough questions.
You need to develop a response that is both accurate and effective, but speed is just as crucial. You had better prepare your response fast, lest you have nothing to say when the first reporter calls. It’s important to have a quick response plan and PR team in place to help strategize the most effective plan of response.
- Start with a statement
Your initial press statement is critical in setting the tone for your accountability campaign. It needs to include four main elements:
- A sincere expression of remorse and accountability. As mentioned, a mea culpa for the event(s) that led to the crisis is the first step toward regaining the public’s confidence.
- The hard facts of the crisis. Don’t get creative, fancy or evasive. Just state the facts.
- Next steps. Include measures the company is planning to resolve the issue and prevent future crises.
- A “point person” and contact info. Make sure your statement includes information on who to contact with questions, as well as a phone number and email address for that spokesperson. Angry consumers need someone to whom they can vent, and a spokesperson will make your outreach efforts appear more genuine and give people the sense that they are being heard. Decide beforehand who that spokesperson will be; a top brand official would be ideal.
Once you issue the statement, measure its effectiveness. There may be additional backlash after the statement is released, so you may need to continually (and accurately) assess the level of crisis and adjust the tone and approach of your message as you go.
- Keep everyone on the same page
Make sure each team member has the same set of information to keep everyone on message.
Don’t give up too much information. Not everyone cares about every minute detail. Make your statements impactful and clear, but give just enough information for the general public to understand. You can get into more minute detail with a reporter, person or audience who is directly affected by that information.
- Expect a negative PR/social media backlash
Your social media following may be small compared with the estimated 2.77 billion social media users worldwide, but all those people still have access to the public information on your network. Inevitably, many of those users will be crawling out of the woodwork to engage–and many will want to vent (as H&M and Starbucks quickly discovered).
While you cannot answer every question that arises via social media, you can assuage most users by posting a statement that includes the four key elements described above. This statement needs to be posted on all social channels.
- Keep calm and have a crisis protocol
Staying calm is key to delivering a message that will save your brand. It’s very tempting to overreact and lash out at the seemingly endless stream of people who are venting at you, but being rude to consumers, reporters and others with whom you are communicating will only spill more oil on the fire.
Step back and take a deep breath. Pretend you’re one of those angry consumers and consider how you would like to be spoken to. Take advantage of this clarity of mind to see if there are any points your message might have missed.
Be compassionate with your message, but remember that you can’t please everyone. Stand by your opinion, and the consumers who share your view will support your brand in times of trouble.
Preparation also is key to staying calm, and in PR that means having a crisis protocol in place. Everyone in your company should be trained internally on who to contact, how to communicate the issue internally and which team members should represent the company on social media.
Get the PR team involved from the outset. Let the PR team lead the internal staff on use of approved and consistent language.
- Report updates
Consumers want to see that actions are being taken to address the crisis, so be sure to publicly share updates on efforts to mitigate any current and future issues. This will show the public that real change has been made. H&M, for example, followed its initial response to the “monkey hoodie” backlash with updates on changes in company procedure and policy, such as the hiring of a diversity leader. Starbucks scheduled a nationwide training day for all employees to help prevent any further instances from occurring in the future.
This blog was written collectively by the Public Relations team at Fiore Inspires. Questions, comments or would like to discuss your PR options with one of our team members? Fill out the comment form below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.