How to come back from a PR disaster
How to come back from a PR disaster
By Katie Mallinson
Founder of Scriba PR, Katie is a PR specialist with almost 10 years’ industry experience.
31st January 2018.
Imagine you started a business creating and selling beautiful, fragrant bath bombs in gorgeous packaging.
Demand is growing fast, you’ve had some great PR in your regional media and glossy consumer magazines, and everything’s going great.
You’ve taken on staff, you have your own premises and some amazing branding in place.
You’re even in line for a start-up business award!
But then a customer complains on Twitter about a severe allergic reaction to your product, complete with horrific pictures – and others join in.
Without really thinking things through, you offer apologies and some freebies but that just seems to make things worse. There’s a big, angry conversation and every time you try to join in, you wish you hadn’t.
And now a reporter from the Daily Mail is on the phone asking you to explain yourself.
PR crises come in different forms. Some are out of nowhere while others can be prevented with pre-emptive research and curtailed by a PR incident plan.
Planning to avert a crisis
If you live in fear of a PR disaster that could destroy your business reputation and threaten its very existence, you are not alone.
But have you really asked yourself why are you worried? What could go wrong? And what you can do to guard against it?
It’s certainly much easier to prevent a PR disaster than to come back from one.
And all businesses and their potential for problems are different.
If you were making bath bombs, our advice would be to make sure you have researched and tested all your ingredients and listed them all properly on the packaging? Have you also ensured that all your suppliers are ethical? Do your claims about using only natural materials stack up?
Those are just a few potential issues surrounding the product before you even begin to think about all the other elements of your business.
Issues management is another big concept in PR planning. This is where you focus on low-level rumblings, such as discontent among a few customers, and work to solve the smaller problems before things escalate.
When disaster strikes
Most companies and organisations, large or small, try their hardest to make sure the worst can’t happen, but sometimes it does.
Even multi-national, blue chip names regularly end up in hot water for all sorts of reasons – whether that’s selling garments made in unethical sweatshops, exposing the personal data of thousands of customers to cyber hackers or unwittingly striking a racist misogynist tone with an advertising campaign.
Standard PR protocol in such a situation is to keep talking to the media, your business friends and followers on social media. If everyone else is talking about you and if they aren’t hearing your point of view, speculation can snowball and you’ll come across as cold and unresponsive.
You might not be able to say much. But even stating that you are investigating and will offer an update when you can is better than nothing. Stick to facts, not rhetoric. Be consistent with your messages to journalists, customers and other stakeholders, such as investors and suppliers.
Think about everyone who needs to be in the loop. When you are unsure about all the details of a situation, you can apologise and show sympathy for something having gone wrong without admitting liability.
Telling the truth
When the dust settles, focus on your actions and words going forward. Will there be an inquiry? What measures are you putting in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again? What else can you say to reassure people, without seeming to trivialise the seriousness of whatever has happened?
Whatever you do there is one golden PR rule – don’t lie.
The public are often willing to forgive companies that put their hands up, admit their mistakes and work hard to put things right. But those who try to wriggle out of their responsibilities or cover things up are unlikely to survive.
It might be tempting to gloss over something, tell a partial truth or even an outright untruth, in an effort not to look as bad in the short term.
But, beware – if you choose this route you will have to keep repeating that lie and stand by it until you are likely found out – with much worse consequences.