7 timeless tactics to mitigate PR crisis damage

Strategize around your dealbreakers, plan for the worst, and learn how to apologize.

7 crisis comms tactics

What’s the cost of a PR crisis?

In a word, incalculable. And it takes only a few moments for everything to unravel.

Today, the outrage machine is always ready to get cranking, and the social media mob is more than willing to pile on—even before all the facts are known.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to truly “crisis-proof” a corporation or brand, but there are seven steps you can take to protect your reputation and mitigate fallout.

1. Crisis-proof your business first.

According to the Reputation Institute, most crises are “simmering” rather than sudden. Firestorms are more likely to arise from a pattern of misbehavior rather than an isolated incident.

One way an organization can protect itself is by empowering and educating its employees to defuse situations quickly. This is particularly important for retailers, restaurants and airlines—and other companies with large, decentralized workforces that may experience high turnover. Those types of businesses are vulnerable to local situations that quickly spiral out of control.

Not every busines can grant customer-facing employees the power to resolve minor incidents quickly, but you should if you can. When we hear about a customer being mistreated, we identify with him or her. The company doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, it’s smart to empower staffers to resolve escalating situations by bending a rule, waiving a penalty or granting the disgruntled consumer a quick benefit for their trouble. Which airline wouldn’t rather have a passenger tweeting about a surprise upgrade than posting an ugly tirade?

2. Know your dealbreakers.

There are undesirable incidents that can prompt customer complaints or negative coverage, and then there are crises that can bring down a CEO or even a business. A rude employee or even workplace misbehavior isn’t necessarily an existential threat for most companies. Most airlines will weather whatever the latest digital tempest is, in part because the traveling public have low expectations of the airline experience. But if you’re a baby food company and there are safety concerns about your product, that’s a dealbreaker. If you’re a beauty brand positioned around diversity and you discriminate in the workplace, that’s a dealbreaker. Those are the scenarios that should be prioritized when planning a crisis response.

3. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Many armchair crisis experts will advise companies to have a crisis plan. That’s more complicated than it seems, because in today’s fast-moving business and media environment, many plans will be outdated by the time a real emergency hits.

To crisis-proof your band, it’s best to cycle through one or more worst-case scenarios, based on experience and institutional knowledge of where the brand and the category are most vulnerable. The baby food reference above comes from a brand I once represented that had undergone a near-fatal situation in which bits of glass were found in its products. The problem was isolated, but once an outraged mom went public with her complaint, a deluge of reports of glass particles in products (most imagined) nearly brought down the company. Even decades later, when most employees who experienced the incident had retired, a strong crisis-preparedness mentality prevailed, from the C-level to every rank-and-file employee. It was in the company’s DNA. And it showed in every aspect of the business, from how it handled consumer complaints and managed sourcing, to manufacturing and marketing. Naturally there was a detailed crisis-proof plan based on the actual incident that included a communications protocol—refreshed quarterly with simulations for key executives.

4. Learn how to apologize.

It’s astonishing how often large organizations fail the apology test. Among other things, a crucial ingredient in an effective public apology is accepting responsibility for the problem. Many companies stumble at that point because they fear legal repercussions or are warned by in-house counsel against admitting anything that could result in legal exposure. Still, the court of public opinion always demands a true, genuine apology.

Instead of waffling, blame-shifting or leading with “protecting the brand,” err on the side of posting a swift and unvarnished mea culpa.

5. Appoint a crisis response leader.

An effective crisis response plan usually involves an executive task force, which is a good thing. But when it hits the fan, it’s crucial to move quickly. You don’t want too many cooks in the crisis comms kitchen. Too often, precious minutes and hours tick away while a company’s management team struggles with how to respond to a business-threatening emergency.

A single decision-maker, usually the CEO or a chief communications officer, should take a leadership role in these cases. In a true crisis, there may not be a 100% “right” or “wrong” decision; the reality is more like shades of gray. It’s more important to be swift and decisive than to be perfect.

6. Have a top-notch spokesperson at the ready.

The crisis spokesperson is usually not the same person as the crisis response leader. Any organization vulnerable to a high-stakes reputation threat should also have a trained media spokesperson so that if a situation does blow up, they’re prepared to respond quickly to media inquiries or explain a potentially complicated situation.

Preparation and formal media training are helpful—and periodic refreshers are a great idea—but there some individuals are simply born for this work. There’s an art to handling heated questions under stress and within severe time constraints that I’m convinced is innate, not acquired. Keep in mind that your best media spokesperson may not be your CEO.

7. Plan for a comeback.

Sometimes crisis lemons make PR lemonade. A smart, strategic response to a negative situation can evoke public sympathy and even boost a brand’s reputation. One celebrated example is the JetBlue “Valentine’s Day massacre” of 2007. JetBlue misjudged a weather emergency and was ultimately forced to ground scores of flights during an epic snowstorm. The debacle affected more than 100,000 passengers and socked the airline with a blizzard of negative press. Part of its response to the meltdown was its famous Customer Bill of Rights—a coda that was covered nearly as widely as the original flight fiasco.

The Bill of Rights called for passenger compensation for a variety of departure and ground delays and—in a prescient move—also outlined reimbursement procedures for bumped passengers. JetBlue’s response is now a Harvard Business School case study, and, according to HBS associate professor Robert Huckman, it probably came out of the crisis better off than it was before, in terms of public perception. Huckman observes, “There are many ways for a growing company to improve; going through a crisis is not necessarily the easiest path to take, but it does force an organization to evaluate its operating processes rapidly and decide where it needs to create greater formalization or structure.”

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO of Crenshaw Communications. A version of this post first ran on the Crenshaw Communications blog.

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