One of the biggest mistakes made by small businesses is the assumption that they don’t need to concern themselves with public relations. The PR industry is still regarded in some quarters as frothy and irrelevant, having never lived down its associations with Absolutely Fabulous. However, it’s better to think of PR like insurance – a low priority most of the time, but crucial in an emergency.
Bad PR has destroyed established brands at a stroke. Jewellery entrepreneur Gerald Ratner saw his international empire of over 1,000 stores ruined by a single speech to the Institute of Directors in 1991. By describing his products as “total crap” and claiming prawn sandwiches lasted longer than a pair of Ratners earrings, £500 million was wiped off the value of the company almost overnight. A hasty rebrand and a change of ownership saved subsidiaries like H. Samuel and Watches of Switzerland, but the Ratners name tarnished faster than its supposedly low-quality jewellery.
Had Ratner’s speech been vetted in advance by a PR person, they would have known to edit it. And had his company responded proactively to the IoD speech, we might still have Ratners stores on our high streets. So how can modern businesses and startups avoid a similar fate by handling a PR crisis effectively?
What to expect when you’re expecting
The first rule of PR is to expect the unexpected. A crisis can flare up from innocuous situations, such as a product dispatched in good faith but damaged in transit. It’s clearly not possible to prepare for every contingency, but brainstorming sessions often identify potential problems. Crisis plans can then be designed to deal with these issues. For example, if your firm designs WordPress websites for a living, consider how to respond if an unpatched vulnerability led to client data being lost. Once the site goes live, who is responsible for updating plugins, and could you robustly defend your policy of non-involvement?
Any defence is likely to be mounted on social media – the frontline for modern PR offensives. Take responsibility for resolving the situation by asking the complainant to summarise their issues, and draft a response designed to draw the sting of any criticism. Say you understand their grievances, and you’re keen to resolve the matter once it’s been fully investigated. Until the full facts are known, avoid definitive statements that can’t be retracted. An apology is an admission of guilt, which may cause legal ramifications at a later date.
Live and direct
At the same time, speed is of the essence in any PR crisis. A complaint received on Friday afternoon simply cannot wait until Monday morning for a response. If you’re an entrepreneur or sole trader, plans for Friday night might need to be cancelled. If you’re part of a team, someone has to monitor social media channels and customer service emails outside office hours. Have a single point of contact if issues arise, ensuring a cohesive tone of voice throughout any crisis.
Swinging into action quickly shows commitment, and it may nip problems in the bud before they lead to cancelled accounts or negative press coverage. If the media gets involved, respond to their enquiries with direct communications rather than a catch-all press release. This could inadvertently publicise the issue, and do long-term reputational damage. Instead, be proactive across social media, which will be most people’s first port of call for live updates. Only give the complainant the full story, since the general public doesn’t care about details. A brief summary of the issue (and your resolution of it) will be sufficient for everyone else.
Keep calm and carry on
A proportionate response is crucial. Unrelated matters will sometimes cause people to overreact, and a calm response may persuade them to adopt a more conciliatory tone. However, the opposite can also be true. By overreacting or apportioning blame, you risk turning a crisis into a confrontation. Apologise for any inconvenience, but not the root cause, unless it’s obviously your fault. Avoid emotive language, say “we” instead of “I” when speaking on behalf of the company, and double-check emails or social posts for bias and emotion before sending them. Customers don’t and won’t care if you or your nominated PR person are dealing with too much at once – everyone has life issues and unique pressures at any given moment in time. And never was the saying “honesty is the best policy” more relevant than during a PR firestorm.
The strength and persistence of a complaint is generally proportional to its frequency, or people’s reliance on that product or service. If customers are depending on your firm for communications or revenue, any loss of service will be felt more keenly than if you sell children’s toys or vintage clothing. On the other hand, multiple issues can build cumulative resentment. Being able to say you’ve never experienced a problem like the one under discussion is a defence of sorts. Conversely, serial offenders will have a hard job claiming lessons will be learned.
Learning those lessons involves persuading future customers they won’t suffer the same problems. Ask colleagues or partner organisations if improvements can be made, or whether this was a freak one-off. In the WordPress scenario above, you could offer new clients twelve months of free plugin management with any new website. However, don’t make expensive promises until you’re clear what’s happened, established whose fault it was, and identified whether potential remedies would avoid future issues. Any change in policy has to be financially justifiable and sustainable in the long run.
Tomorrow’s fish and chip papers
The final tip for handling a PR crisis is that while social media never forgets, consumers move on very quickly. Twitter generally hosts at least one hashtag-driven outrage every day, from cauliflower steaks to store closures. We live in cynical, fast-moving times, where one public flogging rapidly follows another. If Gerald Ratner had made his calamitous speech in 2018 rather than 1991, the resultant PR crisis might not have destroyed his empire…