6 ways to handle a PR crisis

How you respond to a disaster or consumer backlash can make or break your organization’s reputation. Consider a few suggested methods—along with a couple to avoid.

Crises are an inevitable part of PR.

From operational breakdowns, financial scandals and hacked servers to rogue employees choosing to air their grievances in public, no organization can consider itself immune.

Crisis management plans are how organizations mitigate the damage from these threats. Investopedia gives the following definition:

Crisis management is the identification of threats to an organization and its stakeholders, and the methods used by the organization to deal with these threats. Due to the unpredictability of global events, organizations must be able to cope with the potential for drastic changes to the way they conduct business. Crisis management often requires decisions to be made within a short time frame, and often after an event has already taken place.

Here are six examples of crisis responses—four strategies you can and should use, along with two you should avoid.

Depending on the nature and scale of the crisis, several of the strategies below might be appropriate. Your crisis response team should be familiar with each of these approaches and be able to assess the situation to choose the most appropriate approach on short notice. That ability will determine how your organization fares when it comes to media coverage of the incident.

1. The sincere apology

If the crisis is due to employees’ human error or your organization’s products or services are at fault, an apology is appropriate. A high-profile example is the Oscars, where a mistake by Price Waterhouse Cooper consultants caused the wrong film, “La La Land,” to be pronounced as the Best Picture winner, instead of the actual winner, “Moonlight.”

Price Waterhouse Cooper issued an initial statement apologizing to all involved, sent chairman Tim Ryan to deliver face-to-face apologies to reporters and issued a second statement accepting full responsibility for the mistake.

The organization’s apology sounded genuine and heartfelt, which invoked some of the other strategies discussed below.

However, organizations’ brand managers should not apologize before the details of a crisis have been uncovered, because doing so can imply that you accept responsibility before the facts are available.

2. The promise to do better

Apologies are essentially meaningless unless they are backed up by action.

Uber made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks and months. First, #deleteuber trended on Twitter after the company’s culture of institutional sexism was revealed in a blog post by former engineer Susan Fowler. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s former chief executive, called an all-hands meeting where he promised change and announced an investigation.

This was a good move, and should have steadied the boat for a while—except that Kalanick almost immediately undermined himself by berating an Uber driver in a video that was leaked to journalists.

A promise to do better is essential, but it must be backed up by real action. Kalanick’s credibility was in doubt, leading to his resignation and the company’s continued image struggles.

3. The explanation

An old political maxim states, “When you’re explaining, you’re losing.” There is a degree of truth to that, but when something has gone wrong in your organization, explaining what happened is an essential step to reestablish credibility.

Where there is an ongoing problem, such as a service outage, give consumer as much information as you feasibly can, including what the problem is, how long it’s likely to continue, what you’re doing about it and where they can find updates.

Consumers, along with your partners and investors, must understand why the crisis happened, what person or process was to blame and what steps senior leadership have taken to ensure it never happens again. Independent investigations and internal audits are often important parts of this process.

4. The reminder

In its apology, Price Waterhouse Cooper gave a subtle reminder that for more than eight decades, the organization got it right:

For the past 83 years, the Academy has entrusted PwC with the integrity of the awards process during the ceremony, and last night we failed the Academy.

In the aftermath of a crisis scenario, it might be appropriate to remind your stakeholders that though your organization has come through a difficult time, it is still worthy of trust. This can help position the crisis as a one-off event.

For established organizations that invest consistently in their relationships with stakeholders and general enjoy a good reputation, this is a powerful strategy.

5. The denial

A controversial approach to managing communications crises is to simply deny that a crisis has taken place. This strategy—which I don’t endorse—often involves attempting to discredit reporters covering the crisis, distracting members of the news media by changing the subject, refusing to answer questions and ad hominem attacks.

Often, the goal of this strategy is to leave the public confused, so they don’t know who to believe.

6. The blame game

Another strategy, often used by politicians worldwide, is to play the blame game.

Instead of taking ownership when things go wrong, this strategy places the blame on others (often anyone in arm’s reach).

The fallout from this strategy can be catastrophic to your reputation. Blaming those around you for avoidable mistakes often looks unprofessional and immature, and is a strategy no organization should use (unless it can prove it’s not at fault).

Katie Harrington is a PR pro, blogger and author of “Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art.” A version of this story originally appeared on her blog.

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