3 ways to manage a PR crisis

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No matter how airtight your day-to-day communications strategy may be, there’s always the potential for a disaster to hit and thrust your company into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

An employee could go rogue, as Korean Air can attest, a technical glitch could disrupt financial markets, as NYSE experienced, your social media feeds could blow up because of a business or HR decision, as Applebee’s well knows, or a data breach could expose your customers’ personal information, as Target learned. Those occurrences are just the tip of the iceberg.

The bottom line is your business needs to be prepared for worst-case scenarios and act quickly should one occur. Some of these situations, if handled incorrectly, could be the reason your business closes its doors for good.

To avoid being caught flat footed in the event of a PR disaster, here are three actions to manage a crisis quickly.

  1. Appoint a crisis response team: When faced with a situation that could permanently affect your business’ reputation, it’s common to solicit advice from as many colleagues and peers as you can. It’s hard to know the right thing to do in the middle of a crisis, and there’s usually no clear protocol because each situation is unique.

    Instead, appoint a small crisis response team if you don’t have one already. That way, the buck stops with them, and people aren’t constantly wondering who has the authority to make decisions. It’s important to act as quickly as possible, and the team must know to spring into action.

    Additionally, each team member needs a defined role. Responsibilities should include internal communications, external communications, problem diagnosis, client liaison and archiver. The archiver’s duties are often overlooked, but you’ll need to make sure every step is properly documented. Incoming and outbound communications happen so quickly and it’s easy to forget everything you’ve said. You may need to revisit this chronicle in the future as you move forward.

  1. Commit to transparency: This is especially important in the financial services industry. When people are concerned about their money, they can turn vicious quickly. The best way to appease irate customers is to be honest when the situation calls for it. Most crises do.

    Ideally, before a crisis strikes, you will have already figured out how you will communicate en masse with your clients and prospects. Do you have technology in place to blast out an email or post a letter prominently on your website, guaranteeing people will see it? Is there a way to segment your audience, depending on the nature of the crisis?

    Burying your head in the sand during a PR crisis will only do further damage to your reputation. Your clients might find it in their hearts to forgive you and eventually trust you again if you are upfront with them about the situation and provide regular updates. That’s how retailers like Home Depot and Target survived massive credit card breaches. You should never try to sweep things under the rug or downplay the situation, as it reeks of dishonesty and deception. It could even make the crisis seem worse than it is.

  1. Closely monitor online channels: The internet is a vast place, and upset or disgruntled people will utilize every possible avenue to voice their displeasure.

    Dedicate someone to handle your LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., pages to gauge public perception and, if necessary, respond. Monitor your social media accounts in real time, as reputational damage can intensify quickly when a person with a large network is publicly blasting you. It’s never a good idea to delete comments for the sole purpose of quieting the noise. That flies in the face of transparency, and will also serve to fan the flames and incense people further.

    Likewise, someone should be prepared to spend significant time looking at online forums such as Reddit, Google Reviews, Mint.com, Yelp, etc. They’re heavily trafficked and archived, so even if you don’t think the comments are necessarily damaging during the crisis, they could come back to haunt you later down the road when prospects or others are vetting you.

Hopefully you won’t ever have to use these tips, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Of course, if a situation intensifies, it’s always prudent to seek outside counsel from a PR agency with a proven track record handling crises.