Managing a Public Relations Crisis at Your Small Business

by Greg DePersio

4 min read

A public relations crisis is hard to plan for. It usually comes out of nowhere and has a tendency to blindside you as a business owner. Thanks to 24-hour news, social media, and blogs, details of a crisis can spread halfway around the world before you even have the full details of what’s going on. How you manage a PR crisis determines if your business escapes unscathed, or at least with minimal lasting damage. Keeping the fallout to a minimum requires having crisis-management measures in place ahead of time so your business can respond quickly if and when the worst happens. It also demands that you follow the right steps afterward to repair your company’s reputation.

Brainstorming Potential Crises

A PR crisis is easier to handle when it isn’t completely unexpected. It might be helpful to start your disaster-management planning by brainstorming the kinds of calamities most likely to befall a business in your industry. If your business is a restaurant, you know that the possibility exists of having your food supply tainted at some point. It’s happened to several big names in the industry, such as Chipotle and Taco Bell. If you deal with high-net-worth clients who have power and influence, obviously you’re doing everything you can to keep them happy, but you probably still want to plan for the unlikely event that a client turns on you and smears your name in a public forum.By recognizing potential catastrophes before they strike, you can tailor your crisis-management protocol to the crises most likely to happen. This lets you mobilize your response efforts more quickly and effectively.

Identifying and Training Spokespersons

A clunky or unprofessional response to a crisis can have worse lasting effects than the crisis itself. Think about the times celebrities have said or done something controversial, and then made the situation hundreds of times worse by issuing a thoughtless statement about the incident that brewed up another round of furor. On the other hand, when a person or company at the center of a PR crisis delivers a measured response that says the right things, they have a better chance of smoothing over the situation.This is why designating the right spokespersons to handle crisis situations is vital. These people should be articulate and able to thrive under pressure. Your business could have an excellent crisis-management protocol in place, but if the person assigned as the liaison between you and the public flubs the response, it creates a bigger hole to dig out of.

Acknowledge What Happened

Often, the most effective step to defusing a bad situation is simply acknowledging the elephant in the room rather than trying to tiptoe around it and pretend it isn’t there. Suppose you spill ketchup on your shirt before a big meeting. Instead of holding your arm awkwardly over the stain for the entire meeting and hoping people don’t notice, it’s much better to just stand up at the beginning and point it out.That basic example carries over to bigger crises. In 2011, college basketball coach Bruce Pearl committed a minor recruiting violation that would have resulted in some temporary bad press and possibly minor sanctions from the league. But instead of owning up to what happened, Pearl tried to sweep it under the rug. The result was a much bigger crisis that consumed the sports media for months and permanently derailed his career.If you do nothing else in response to a PR crisis, at least stand up and acknowledge what happened.

Take Responsibility

Sometimes it’s amazing how much the public respects a company that takes responsibility for its missteps and doesn’t make excuses or deflect blame. In the early 2000s, Hardee’s Food Systems — which does business as Carl’s Jr. in Canada — was on its deathbed. Negative PR swirled around the company on account of declining food quality, unclean locations, and lackluster service. Instead of going into denial about it, the leadership took a completely unexpected approach to the PR crisis.The company launched a brilliant TV marketing campaign that featured a construction worker making a lunch run for his co-workers. When he returns with Hardee’s bags, they’re shocked and disgusted. Why would you get Hardee’s, they ask. The worker responds that he knows Hardee’s has been terrible for years, but now the chain has a new line of burgers that is better than anything in the fast food industry. Skeptical, the other guys bite into their burgers and, of course, they’re blown away.The campaign worked because Hardee’s took responsibility for its poor quality and demonstrated what it had done to make things better.

Take Care of Your Employees

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in reaching out to customers and the public during a PR crisis that you forget about your employees. But the last thing you want during a public relations nightmare is to have to try and rebuild your company’s reputation without its best workers. When bad PR hits, employees fear for their job security and often have their faith in the company rattled. Many may start polishing up their resumes and planning their exit routes.Once a crisis materialises, consider having an all-hands-on-deck meeting in which you take the same steps with your employees as with your customers and the general public: acknowledge what is happening, take responsibility, and lay out the company’s plan for remedying the situation.A public relations crisis is one of the worst things you can deal with as a business owner. But if you handle it the right way, you can bounce back quickly and save your company’s reputation.

References & Resources

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