More often than not, the most memorable moments are the ones we don’t plan.
Take the Best Picture award at the 2017 Oscars. Moments after “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz had finished his speech while accepting the award, Oscars staff rushed the stage. Horowitz, along with announcer Warren Beatty and others, stood in shock. What should have been a picture-perfect surprise for the creators and all-black cast of “Moonlight” — the true 2017 winner of best picture — devolved into utter chaos.In entertainment and in business, public relations crises happen, and they happen more often than you might think. According to communications firm ODM Group,
In entertainment and in business, public relations crises happen, and they happen more often than you might think. According to communications firm ODM Group, 59 percent of business leaders have experienced a PR crisis, and 79 percent believe the next crisis is less than a year away — yet only 54 percent have crisis plans in place.
When it comes to PR disasters, experience can teach, but it can’t exempt. That’s why it’s so important to practice emergency management.
Don’t Wait for Disaster
Ina McGuinness, senior vice president at Abernathy MacGregor, likens public relations preparedness to business strategy. “You had a business plan before you created a business,” McGuinness said. “Have a crisis plan before you have a crisis.”
Fortunately, crisis planning isn’t as tough as you might think. First, consider what kind of squalls might befall your business. Then, for each problem, describe how you’d solve it. Who’d direct the response? Who’d serve as spokesperson? Don’t forget to look internally, too. Who should employees contact about a storm on the horizon?
Once you’ve drafted a plan, get a second opinion. While most small businesses can’t afford to retain crisis management firms, an annual review may be within reach. And once you’ve established a working relationship with such a firm, it’ll likely offer free advice in the event of a public relations emergency.
Again, advanced preparation is key. “In the midst of a crisis is not the time to introduce yourself,” McGuinness warned. “But if a crisis expert knows you, he or she will tell you what to do and what not to do in those first crucial hours.”
The Anatomy of a PR Plan
Whatever your company’s budget, a few best practices can prevent a crisis from becoming catastrophic. Be sure your strategy includes the following features:
1. A rapid response team.
Before a tornado starts spinning, designate emergency responders from relevant teams. Describe who’ll take charge and how they should spread the word following discovery of the disaster. Depending on the crisis, you’ll need members from management, customer service, social media, technology, and security.
A delayed response can torch a company’s credibility. After news broke in November 2015 that Washington and Oregon Chipotle restaurants had served E. coli-tainted food, CEO Steve Ells quickly apologized on NBC’s Today show. In December, about a month after the initial reports, Chipotle officials issued new food safety protocols.
The fast casual chain, however, wasn’t so quick to actually enforce those protocols. That December, it shuttered a Boston location after more than 140 customers were sickened by norovirus. “I would give them a C,” Laurel Kennedy, principal at crisis management agency Blink, told Restaurant News, criticizing Chipotle for its lack of specifics, speed, and social media presence. A year after Chipotle’s initial crisis, store volumes dipped from $2.5 million to $1.8 million, with experts predicting volumes will stagnate until 2020 or beyond — if they ever recover.
2. A discovery and discussion procedure.
It’s essential to respond rapidly, but doing so before understanding the extent of the damage is a recipe for even greater ruin. Find a middle ground: Respond as soon as you can speak knowledgeably on the issue. Making false statements is worse than admitting you don’t have all the answers.
Social media software Buffer, for instance, faced a security breach a few years ago. Not only did it respond quickly, but it also published real-time updates via the company’s blog. As a result, Buffer survived the storm relatively unscathed.
3. A commitment to honesty.
It’s a rule every child knows: If you do something wrong, own up to it. Companies that sincerely apologize for their mistakes will find customers surprisingly forgiving. This doesn’t have to be complicated: Describe the problem, take responsibility, share how you’re fixing it, and explain how you’ll prevent it from happening again.
What does that look like? In 2012, a KitchenAid employee posted an insensitive tweet about former President Barack Obama’s grandmother to the company account instead of her own. The tweet was deleted, but not before it caught online attention. Minutes later, Cynthia Soledad, then-head of the KitchenAid brand, took to social media to accept responsibility, apologize, and explain that the employee would no longer be tweeting for KitchenAid. Crisis averted — all thanks to some down-to-earth honesty.
4. A default to empathy.
Even when a crisis isn’t your company’s fault, you should show empathy. Sometimes legal ramifications preclude an apology, but you can — and should — express sympathy to those affected.
After BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, CEO Tony Hayward infamously told reporters “I’d like my life back.” After 11 workers died and untold thousands on the Gulf Coast lost their livelihoods, Hayward made the crisis about his personal hardships. His remarks drew well-deserved fury, exacerbating BP’s public relations nightmare.
5. A plan to rebuild trust.
A company that’s truly sorry for wrongdoing does what it takes to put things right. A public relations crisis should be addressed like a large-scale customer complaint. How will you rectify the situation? Prove your allegiance to customers, whomever is to blame.
After an ice storm ravaged the East Coast, JetBlue Airways went above and beyond to help stranded fliers. Instead of blaming the weather, former CEO David Neeleman apologized to customers, introduced a customer bill of rights, and presented a plan to help affected passengers.
In the day-to-day battle of business, a public relations crisis strategy is easy to neglect. But when you consider how little time it takes to establish — and that it could save the company from a ruinous moment in the limelight — you’ll realize there are few better business investments.