How to prevent or resolve your next PR crisis

To avoid a PR catastrophe, pay attention to repeated criticism, anticipate specific scenarios and practice your response plan.

PR crises are becoming more common.

Regulatory fines increased by more than five times from 2010 and 2016, according to McKinsey. Between 2010 and 2017, headlines with the word “crisis” appeared 80 percent more often than in the previous decade.

Preparing a comprehensive crisis management plan is more important than ever. To steer clear of disaster, McKinsey offers these recommendations:

  • Pay attention to repeated criticism. Wells Fargo and Uber could have mitigated their PR crises if they had listened to criticism, evaluated it objectively and acted promptly to correct internal problems. Uncovering patterns of criticism is a vital task; put someone in charge of it.
  • Brainstorm different types of disasters and other problems, and create plans to respond to them. Everyone in marketing, PR and sales should have easy access to the crisis plan and review it regularly.
  • Create a team. Before problems erupt, select a group with the authority to decide how the organization will respond. The team may also include outside crisis management, PR and legal counsel.

  • Practice the plan. Run scenarios with your team to ensure everyone is prepared. As Delta’s Rachel Rensink is quoted in O’Dwyer’s, “Do not create a plan and put it on the shelf until you really need it. Plan, test, practice, evaluate, re-test, re-evaluate, evolve, etc. Social media changes and evolves so quickly, and you need to evolve with it.” Hospitals run disaster drills. Other organizations should as well—including drills that simulate computer hacks.
  • Monitor both traditional and social media. Media monitoring can alert PR about an emerging crisis by reporting a spike in negative comments. Continually monitor your brand for news and social media comments. Agree on who’s in charge of monitoring social media and what they are listening for.Media monitoring provides essential information before, during and after a crisis. According to Convince & Convert’s Jay Baer, “A social media crisis has information asymmetry. When the company does not know any more than the public about what’s going on … that’s information asymmetry—the first sign of a social media crisis.”

What the latest research says

Research revealed at the International Public Relations Research Conference offers principles on how organizations can prevent a PR crisis. PR measurement expert Katie Paine cites some of the most valuable:

Identify your loudest opponents. Nykredit, a mortgage bank based in Denmark, caused an uproar when it raised monthly mortgage payments for thousands of customers. Researchers from the University of Missouri and East Carolina University showed how the bank used a visual mapping tool to identify the most influential critics. After the first week, research found that 21 key voices drove most of the criticism. You can also use a social media measurement tool to identify influential critics, then attempt to mollify them with help from brand advocates.

Treat employees well. Companies known for treating employees well fare better during a crisis, according to researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Missouri. If consumers believe organizations mistreat employees, they are more likely to criticize them on social media and boycott their products.

Strong relationships with customers may not help. Consumers who respect a brand may not necessarily feel sympathy for it during a crisis, says a researcher from Texas Christian University. The consumers’ love becomes disappointment, and the stronger the positive connection, the greater the feeling of betrayal. The researcher recommends that brands focus more on how products fulfill needs.

Recognize the limits of social media. A strong presence on social media can increase your brand’s credibility and improve your reputation. However, it does little to mitigate anger in the heat of a crisis.

Use caution when responding to disasters. Attempts to express sympathy or evoke patriotic feelings in the wake of a disaster can backfire. People may be receptive to messages related to disasters, but they’re likely to stop buying a brand’s products if they sense a hint of commercialism in the message.

The nonstop news cycle puts brands at a greater risk of suffering a PR crisis. Preparing a plan to handle a calamity is just as essential as trying to avoid a disaster.

A version of this post first appeared on .

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