In a world gone viral, bad news can spread in the blink of an eye. Literally.
Companies and organizations both big and small are at risk for potential crises that may hamper profits, destroy reputation, and cause general harm to assets. When a public relations crisis strikes, there are things organizations can do to help minimize the negative effects of a negative situation.
But first things first…
Are you really in a crisis?
Just because another electronics store opens down the street from your electronics store, doesn’t mean you’re in a crisis. That’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes. W. Timothy Coombs, a leading guru in the public relations crisis management world, defines a crisis as “an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes.” That being said, a crisis is perceptual. If your organization’s stakeholders believe the company is in a crisis situation, you are, and you must act accordingly.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
No organization should be caught unprepared for any crisis. And these days there are more opportunities for crises to arise than ever before. Social media escalates the rate at which undesirable news spreads, and online review sites can spread negative comments like wild fire. A crisis management plan can ease the pain of dealing with a crisis, and possibly prevent the situation from crippling an organization. Identifying potential crises is a good place to start. Is your organization at risk for a widespread impact from a flood or another natural disaster? What would reports of employee misconduct do to your company? Murphy says anything that can go wrong, will. So prepare for it.
Once potential crises have been identified, a crisis management plan, complete with a communication strategy, designated crisis team, and post crisis plan, should be created. When a crisis occurs, this complete plan will prevent many headaches, and serve as a guide for handling negative situations.
So you’re in a crisis. Now what?
- Yes, social media can work against an organization in crisis, but it can also work wonders to connect audiences and stakeholders. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, energy company Con Edison took to the Twittersphere to communicate power restoration efforts to its anxious customers. Over 1,650 tweets went out, and Con Edison was able to communicate directly with those who used Twitter to get in touch with the organization. Twitter, along with other social media platforms, allow organizations to communicate quickly and effectively with large audiences, which is vital in a crisis when time is of the essence.
- Public relations professionals must keep their fingers on the pulse of public opinion at all times, and during a crisis this is especially true. People talk, good or bad, and responding to questions and comments is a good way to be transparent and honest in trying times. Know what’s happening before, during and after a crisis.
- Any good communication plan has an entire section entirely focused on post-crisis, where all the lessons learned from dealing with a negative situation can be evaluated. Then a plan for the next potential crisis can be made based on those lessons.
- Image restoration tactics should be implemented once a crisis dissipates. After the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP rolled out a multi-level image repair campaign, focusing on its connection to the people impacted most by the disaster. The hope was that the campaign would rebuild trust with publics and restore its image with stakeholders.
- Don’t wait; deal. If a crisis arises, the first reaction can be to ride it out until it goes away, but often it does not. Begin to communicate with the public early and work to reassure them that the issue is being resolved.
- Don’t lose focus. Crises can snowball quickly. Don’t lose focus on the crisis at hand, and make sure your communication efforts are firmly grounded in your communication plan.
- Don’t forget about employees. Employees can be the best resource for spreading the good word about an organization, and they are usually eager to do so. Image restoration efforts should include employees, who can be used as brand ambassadors.
- Don’t take advantage of consumers. Many businesses, such as American Apparel and Urban Outfitters, showed a lack of sensitivity to the citizens affected by Superstorm Sandy, using marketing ploys offering discounts for those impacted by the storm. The backlash from these gimmicks was harsh, and hurt the companies’ images.
- Don’t say ‘no comment.’ Saying ‘no comment’ to any question implies guilt and is often just a bad as saying nothing at all. Stick to a crafted message until more details about the situation emerge.
When disaster strikes, take a deep breath, keep a cool head, and delve in to the issue. Guided by a strategic crisis communication plan and an ace crisis management team, a public relations crisis will be much easier to handle.
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