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In a year that’s already seen its share of public relations blunders, United Airlines seems to be in one that just won’t go away. To be sure, dragging a man off a flight is bad enough, but the airline did itself no favors by how it responded to this oh-so-cringeworthy event.

Instead of apologizing, as you’d expect, United doubled down and decided to blame the passenger for the physical response. It wasn’t until the public cried foul, and its stock took a significant nosedive, that the airline finally pledged to change its ways.

But the damage, as they say, was already done — not to mention, the response was categorically too little, too late.

Timing Is Everything

In a time when even the most ordinary post can go viral, leaders can no longer afford to ask their PR departments to craft a crisis-specific response. Nor do they have the luxury of “sleeping” on it. Messages are now demanded on the spot before you ever have a chance to think.

And if those words aren’t chosen wisely, you certainly can’t retract because they’re already shared with the world. You now have to know your message and the answers to many questions long before they are asked. It’s all about thinking on your feet and being ahead of the message, if not the story itself.

This has led many companies to be in an almost constant state of damage control. A single tweet from a dissatisfied customer can become a PR nightmare. After all, you never know how much sway 140 characters can have over public perception until the “shares” start adding up.

Pepsi knows this all too well after airing an ad that appropriated imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement. The tone-deaf spot culminated with a cop accepting a Pepsi from Kendall Jenner to the approval of both the protestors and the police.

Twitter lit up, but a tweet from the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. stood out from all the rest. She wrote, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.” Those 11 words put everything into perspective, leading Pepsi to apologize and pull the ad.

To maintain public favor, you must keep a watchful eye over everything from television, radio, and magazines to emails, blogs, and social channels. That often means creating a communication plan to protect your brand, your company, and your employees. So, how exactly do you go about doing just that?

1. Reevaluate your customers constantly. Your customers are no longer distant statistics, researched for you by some third-party company. They’re all around you, and you need to use new media to always stay in touch with them. Be in their zone, their tweets, and their Facebook chat groups.

But don’t analyze them as you always have. Try to listen carefully to what is being said, and use these social channels to understand their shifting wants and needs. Remember, there will be numerous voices, many of which will be conflicting. Cut through the white noise to find the common thread in the social media chatter.

2. Nurture your reputation. A good reputation can do more than boost brand awareness, generate more business, and encourage customer loyalty — not that these aren’t reasons enough. It also has a way of rebuffing some of that tarnish often left on a company after a brand crisis.

Get to work on a public relations strategy to strengthen your reputation before someone missteps. Invest more time, money, and effort in preparation. Develop your messaging, your voice, and your vision. Parallel it to what’s happening, what’s current, and what it means to your customers.

3. Be honest and transparent. You know being honest is the most effective way to instill trust into consumers. But honesty also means some self-evaluation on your part. Reflect on your products, your services, and your company, and let this self-reflection translate into transparency about how you conduct business.

Take McDonald’s, for example. In Canada, the fast food chain ran an “Our Food, Your Questions” campaign, encouraging customers to ask anything. The tactic not only racked up more than 42,000 questions and a 3.8 million-visitor surge in traffic, but it also gave McDonald’s a chance to allay rumors about its food and ingredients.

When companies commit to transparency, most consumers will reward them with their loyalty — to the tune of 94 percent, according to a study from Label Insight. In other words, work toward transparency in your offers, your products, and the inner workings of your company.

Missteps happen these days. Try as you might, your brand will one day find itself in a PR crisis. It all comes down to how you handle your response, and that often means, to borrow from a Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.”