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How To Handle a PR Crisis

“I ain’t no BP”

You may think, “my business is no BP – there’s no way I would ever be caught in the midst of a PR disaster.”

While your crisis may not capture the attention of world leaders (we certainly hope not!), it’s a fact that small businesses can be impacted by events that attract significant negative attention.

Image: LadyDragonflyCC’s Flickstream, Creative Commons

Here are just a few worst-case scenarios that can (and have) hit small businesses:

  • One of your employees, while running an errand for you in your company-branded car, is texting while driving and hits a school bus full of children.
  • Your company hosts or sponsors an event that’s open to the public, and a fight breaks out among attendees.
  • Due to an error by the production company, your business releases a product with a major defect.
  • The company handling your online sales has a security breach, potentially putting your customers’ information at risk.

Whether the potential risks for your company include the above or something different, PR practitioners live by the motto, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

The difference between a brief blip of attention, and a full-on “feeding frenzy” of negative media coverage that lasts for several days (or more), is often due to the company’s reaction in the first 24 hours.

What to do

1. React quickly.

Years ago (before the 24-hour, up-to-the-minute news cycle), you could take a bit of time formulating the best response to a crisis.

Today, especially with social media allowing stories to spread in mere minutes, silence is simply not an option.

It’s important to note that today we often see a crisis of negative sentiment build online first, and then get picked up by traditional media.

Even if your first, short-term response is simply, “we’re currently gathering all the facts and will be issuing a statement shortly,” it’s important to show you care by being responsive when you first learn of the crisis event.

2. Always tell the truth.

While some folks mistakenly believe that PR pros are professional liars, nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s our job to protect an organization’s reputation, and nothing ruins this more quickly than getting caught spreading falsehoods – we know this well.

In fact, it came to light that Toyota’s top U.S. PR executive urged the automaker to inform the public of defects earlier this year.

Of course, just as our moms told us, complete honesty is simply the best policy and the only way to maintain credibility.

But beyond that, it’s also the way to prevent staying in the headlines for multiple days after your crisis occurs. Companies that only cop to part of a story are just asking for reporters to find out the other half on their own.

When it comes to painful situations and admissions, it’s like ripping off a bandaid – get it over with quickly!

3. Consult a lawyer when needed, but don’t listen to them for PR advice

In the case of the texting employee above, you could be facing litigation. In that case, as in others, you would definitely want to speak with your lawyer before making a public statement.

However, as Tiger Woods could tell you, a statement that is short on facts, skirts the truth and is full of lawyer-speak simply doesn’t ring true to the public.

If your community feels you’re being disingenuous, they can turn on you quickly. It’s important that any statements have a human quality, for example comments such as “our hearts go out to the families” or “our customers are our number one priority, and we value the trust they put in us” must ring true.

You may want to bring in a professional PR consultant with expertise in crisis communications to help you; many are available as “hired guns” to help in unpredicted situations.

Crisis Planning

When the white hot spotlight of negative attention is on your company, even the coolest heads tend to enter reactive mode and make mistakes.

How can you avoid “Chicken Little” syndrome when the chips are down? Develop a Crisis Communications Handbook.

A Crisis Communications Handbook for your business helps ensure you will follow the above guidelines by thinking through the possible scenarios in advance, when you’re calm.

Identify what kinds of events could potentially bring negative attention to your business, and then lay out specifics on how it will be handled.

Among them:

  • Try to imagine the most knee-knocking questions that could come your way, and then craft how you would respond in a Q&A document.
  • Think about the many different ways people access information these days, and identify who on your team will update the Web site, social media networks, etc.
  • What if one of these key point people goes on vacation? Make sure each of the responsible parties in the crisis plan has a backup person.

Many organizations never have to face a PR crisis, but are you willing to bet your business on it?

A crisis planning document is like insurance – you hope you never need it, but you’ve got it just in case.

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Kellye Crane is an accomplished, award-winning communicator with more than 20 years of experience in strategic public relations, social media, and marketing communications. An in-demand speaker, Kellye addresses the intersection of social media and PR on her Solo PR Pro blog, which serves as a resource for those working as independent consultants — and those who’d like to be. She’s frequently listed as one of the top 100 PR pros to follow on Twitter.


    1. Great advice, especially the part about listening to lawyers, but not following their PR advice!

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