A PR crisis is likely to strike when you least expect it. You’re hit with an ugly lawsuit. A health hazard derails your supply chain. Your CFO said something offensive on a panel and it went viral. Ordinarily, you’d be delighted to wake up and see your company in the news, but if the news is bad, it’s a PR crisis.
They say ‘there’s no bad press.’ But after coaching hundreds of clients through their darkest days of PR, I can attest they are wrong. “Cancel culture” is real. Customers are willing to boycott on little or no provocation, and companies are being held to increasingly higher ethical standards as the internet keeps consumers informed. Bad press is a bad way to start any morning, but sometimes it happens. So what do you do in a crisis PR situation? First of all, don’t panic. After you’ve taken a few deep breaths, consider these steps.
Think carefully but quickly about your public response
First, you should huddle with your PR agent and your attorney. Get perspective from both, and ensure that whatever happens next, their two perspectives are operating together, hand in glove. Decide on the stance you need to take, and the ramifications for each of these decisions. Who are the audiences you need to communicate to, and in what sequence? Your board, investors, employees and customers will all need to be informed, and things will go abundantly better if they hear the news and the response from you before they read about what you said or did in the press. There may be legal disclosure requirements if you are publicly traded or if there’s been a data breach, so be certain you follow those requirements to a T.
Are you apologizing or doubling down? Are you deferring to an authoritative voice? Are you making systemic upgrades? Are you firm in your position, or you are listening to others? Clarity is critical before anyone from your company goes public with a response. Act fast to determine a position that addresses the problem, stays authentic to your brand and takes steps toward a solution that works for you. And if you haven’t already done so, be certain you make it explicitly clear to your employees who is authorized to speak to the press and what they should do if they receive a reporter’s call or a question. Many crises become substantially worse when someone in the company, even with good intentions, speaks out before you’ve enacted a plan.
When you’ve arrived at a position, craft your copy. Don’t get on camera and “wing it,” but try not to sound like a robot, either. It may be best that your initial response is in writing. Where and how you post it will be important as well. Does it belong on your website? Social media? A press release? A single broadcast interview? Think it through carefully, and use the spotlight as an opportunity to deliver your brand message well and showcase your empathy for the situation along with your problem-solving skills at your best. Make your response quick, transparent, heartfelt and on-brand. Accept responsibility for the elements that are yours to accept, and especially until all of the facts have been gathered and analyzed, stick to the resolution at hand and avoid placing blame.
Establish future preventative measures, and accept responsibility
Naturally, implementing a preventative step is everything, especially when it comes to serious matters such as a cybersecurity breach. The past year has been a breathtaking wake-up call for companies that have been lax on cybersecurity and suffered PR crises as a result. In 2018 there were 1,244 data breaches reported in the United States that exposed more than 400 million files. This is over 100 percent more than the previous year. And 2019 was even worse (or, if you’re a hacker, better), with 3,812 attacks that exposed an astonishing 4.1 billion files.
As an example, the recent Capital One breach was among the worst PR nightmares for a data hacking on one of the country’s largest banks. The average data breach costs a company around $4 million. Capital One may be on the hook for as much as $300 million. But the heaviest costs for this and other PR nightmares take the form of broken consumer and customer trust.
“Customers expect that when they go to your website, you are handling the security of their data,” says Uzair Gadit in an email interview. He is co-founder and CEO of Pure VPN, a company that offers encryption services and secure Wi-Fi protection against security breaches. “If you aren’t taking up-to-date precautionary measures, you’re leaving your brand exposed to an expensive and embarrassing PR nightmare,” he says. “Unfortunately, a number of brands volunteer their customers’ private information because they don’t take the proper precautions.”
Regardless of who’s at fault for a breach, customers are not sympathetic. For this and any PR crisis, it’s important to remember that whether or not you are legally liable, you don’t want to fumble your customers’ trust. For any crisis (product quality, a worksite accident or a data breach) that breaks customer trust, your foremost effort should be to take responsibility and fix it.
Court your customers anew with deals, discounts and reimbursements
After a crisis has happened, what’s next? Try to be patient, as customers can be fickle, but with consistent attention to their support you can win them back. Fortunately and unfortunately, outrage happens fast, but it also passes quickly in the digital age. If you’ve communicated effectively, owned responsibility and fixed the problem, it’s time to buy your customer flowers, so to speak. After your responsibilities are handled, offer them something sweet and tangible to rekindle the romance. Discounts and reimbursements bring customers back to your brand and give you the chance to deliver a positive experience again. This is the time to be generous.
Upgrade subscriptions to premium service at no additional cost for affected users. Introduce a discount membership to attract new signups. Buy back the exploding phones and move on to designing a new and improved model that doesn’t explode. These are ways to isolate the negative experience from your positive brand identity.
If you handle your PR crisis well, people will usually stick with a preferred company. In summary:
- Start with an intentional response that’s transparent and on-brand.
- Own the problem by fixing the bugs that caused it and implementing preventative measures for the future.
- Make up the lapse to your customers by offering them something meaningful.
Very important: Nowhere in this process is there room for coverup, spin or dodging. Companies are run by humans, and we are imperfect, by our very definition. A crisis is your chance to show the world how you handle mishaps. Do it with grace, accountability and a willingness to make amends. Maybe you can even turn the situation into good news and better press in the end.