Who would have bet that Domino’s, Toyota, BP, Tiger Woods, Apple and the Catholic Church would have a reason to show up in the same sentence? But when the topic is 2010 PR nightmares, they all share the same dubious achievement, with each serving as an example of what anyone facing a public relations crisis should follow or — more often — avoid at all costs.
Why businesses make news for the worst reasons
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Most public relations crises start from real or rumored incidents that fit into one of these categories:
- A lapse in social responsibility stemming from policies that result in worker mistreatment, environmental damage or other harmful effects.
- A breach of corporate standards or law, including accounting discrepancies, violation of regulations, and abuse of consumer, investor, stockholder and public trust.
- Inappropriate personal behavior by a top executive, spokesperson or brand representative.
- Sudden death or departure of a high-profile business leader
- Product failures, malfunctions or dangers
- Natural or manmade disasters or accidents, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, fires and terrorist attacks, to name a few.
Know your vulnerabilities
Use the preceding list to rank the likelihood that your business could be affected by a PR crisis. For instance, a small service business probably has low risk of a breach of corporate standards, while a business owned by a party-loving entrepreneur may have high risk for inappropriate behavior. By assessing where your business is at high, medium or low risk, you can plan protective actions.
Identify worst-case scenarios
Once you’ve determined your highest risks for PR crises, determine which aspect of your business reputation would be most damaged by each one. This is an important step because the closer a crisis strikes to the essence of what your business stands for, the more damage it will unleash. For instance, the Toyota recall was particularly hard-hitting because it struck directly at the brand’s promise of superior quality. Likewise, the Tiger Woods philandering revelations might have been less devastating had his brand not been built so strongly around personal discipline, integrity and family focus.
Take pre-emptive action
If you’re at risk of a PR crisis that could strike at the essence of your personal or business reputation, take preventive action ASAP. Enact new policies. Establish a succession plan. Address high-risk behaviors. Take all actions possible to reduce vulnerabilities.
At the same time, prepare lists of media, security and emergency contacts. Name those who will serve as crisis managers and spokespeople. And get active on social media so those essential channels will be open for rapid crisis communication.
Move quickly if a crisis strikes
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Today, PR crises go viral within seconds, so be prepared for immediate response. Address problems honestly, clearly and with total transparency. Tiger Woods demonstrated what happens if you wait weeks and then hold a no-questions-allowed news conference, and BP and the Catholic Church provided examples of what happens if you ignore or try to minimize problems.
On the flip side, Apple proved that a slow start (and finger-pointing) can be overcome by investing heavily in solutions that address consumer problems. And Domino’s will go into textbooks as an example of the value of being tuned into social media, which they were able to activate within 48 hours, responding to devastating employee YouTube videos with trust-restoring videos of their own.
If a PR crisis strikes your business, immediately take these steps:
- Learn what happened, who is affected and what media are spreading the news so you can respond through the same channels.
- Take responsibility. Communicate what happened, what you’re doing to correct the problem, and how it won’t happen again.
- Keep messages brief and clear, providing backup information available on request.
- Be consistent by using the same spokespeople, messages and assurances.
Never try to sweep what are euphemistically called “transgressions” under the carpet, and never underestimate the scope of the problem. Instead, immediately use the same media that are spreading the bad news and sincerely take responsibility, clearly communicating that you’re putting customers’ or the public’s welfare first while working on solutions that address the problem.
Finally, remind yourself that most companies overcome public relations nightmares, and with preparation, speed, honesty and transparency, yours likely will, too.
is a small-business strategist, the author of “Small Business Marketing for Dummies,” and the co-author of “Branding for Dummies,” “Selling Your Business for Dummies” and “Business Plans Kit for Dummies.”