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How to respond in the face of a PR crisis

It’s every CEO’s worst nightmare: waking up one day and checking their Twitter feed or the front page of the newspaper and seeing their company’s name in the headlines attached to a negative story.

It’s happened to some of the biggest companies in the world: Think of video footage of two African-American men being brought out of a Starbucks in handcuffs for not having ordered a drink, or Facebook getting caught in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. More recently, imagine ABC President Channing Dungey’s reaction when she saw one of her network’s biggest stars sending out racist tweets towards a former Obama administration advisor.

In all these cases, as we have seen countless times before, how a company responds in a time of crisis determines how intact they will be on the other side.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still getting criticized for not giving a real and in-depth response to the role Facebook played in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, despite the multitude of opportunities for him to do so, prompting calls for a boycott of the social media giant by celebrities and common users alike. In stark contrast, Starbucks, when faced with a public relations disaster of their own, responded almost immediately, speaking out against the improper treatment of those customers, and closing down their stores across North America for mandatory racial bias training.

No matter how big your brand, how you respond in a crisis can make or break your company, and being prepared beforehand is incredibly important.

The Pre-Crisis Plan

Having a plan in place in the event of a crisis can help your company respond quickly and appropriately in the face of a crisis. Not having that plan can leave you out in the cold to face the public’s outrage. When it comes to crisis communications, it’s really a case of “it’s better to have a plan that you never use than find out you needed one after it was already too late.”

Here are a few tips for proactively preparing for a public relations crisis:

  • Have a designated spokesperson: This could be a corporate communications officer, the President or CEO – anyone with the right level of authority to give the impression that the issue is important to the company.

  • Have a timeline goal: Set a time frame within which you want to respond. Typically it’s ideal to respond in 12 hours or less, depending on the severity of the crisis.

  • Establish regular communications channels: Have an active presence on social media, for example, or maintain regular communication with shareholders or customers; this can help establish trust.

  • Proactively monitor the media: This can help you get ahead of the story, but it can also help you react faster when something does happen. Simple things like setting up Google alerts for your company’s name can save vital time in a crisis.

  • Foreseeing a crisis: Take an honest look at your company and try to identify possible areas of concern and where a problem could arise, and monitor them.

Having a plan that incorporates any or all of these components can help your company get a response out as soon as possible, and it can also help by easing the state of panic slightly. Knowing you’re prepared actually makes it much easier to respond in the right way, at the right time.

That said, crises don’t always announce their arrival, which can make getting out a proper response in a reasonable time frame that much harder.

During a Crisis:

Some things in life you can prepare for, and others you can’t. While Starbucks is certainly a large enough corporation to be prepared to deal with a crisis, they may not have been prepared to deal with the backlash of having two African American men arrested for no reason in one of their stores.

Here are a few tips for how to respond in those situations you were not prepared for:

  • Act quickly: The timing of your response is crucial. As mentioned above, aiming to respond within 12 hours is ideal. It shows that you and your company are not hiding from the issue, and it shows that you care enough to issue a response right away. The longer it sits, the worse it’s going to get.

  • Personalize the statement: Whether it is coming from the CEO or the corporate communications officer, the response has to seem (or ideally actually be) genuine. It is important that the response seems like it is coming from a real human being, not a lawyer. This adds credibility to the words, especially when it involves people who have been hurt, whether it’s physically, emotionally, or financially.

  • Offer solutions instead of excuses: People are smart, and they will recognize an excuse from a mile away. Don’t shy away from explaining what happened, but be careful to not make it sound like an excuse. Offering ways of addressing the issues at hand rather than simply apologizing and giving excuses can go a long way (think Starbucks again).

  • Be Honest: This might be the most important point of them all. Do not lie in response to a crisis, because odds are you will be caught in that lie, and your crisis will get much worse. Speaking honestly and openly helps build the trust you will need to repair any damage with your customers or stakeholders.

When faced with a crisis, there are two main factors to consider when giving a response: First the words themselves, and secondly the timing. While we have suggested getting a response out in 12 hours or less, if you need to take more than that to craft the perfect response, you should do just that, within reason.

Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Likewise, addressing the problem in the wrong way will only make it worse. “No comment” is a comment in of itself. It is genuinely better to remain silent and craft a response than to come out and say that you have no comment, so long as it doesn’t get put off for too long. But above all else, responding openly and honestly will do more to help you through a crisis than just about anything else.

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