Rare is the company that doesn’t encounter an occasional PR problem. Perhaps a customer feels insulted, or an employee sends a revealing email to the wrong person, or a rival spreads damaging rumors, or a popular product turns out to have an embarrassing flaw.
When a PR problem occurs, many small-business owners instinctively try to lie or remain silent and hope the uproar dies a swift death. But that almost never happens. So, when a negative incident occurs, here are some proactive steps you can take to keep a small PR problem from becoming a large-scale crisis.
Act Quickly and Decisively at the First Sign of Trouble
If you put out a fire early, you limit the damage it does. In the same way, if you avoid delays in responding to a PR problem, you reduce the chance it will grow into a crisis. In most cases, there are major advantages (see below) to publicizing your side of the story before someone else’s version becomes solidly entrenched in people’s minds.
Of course, just as you never know where a fire will start, you can’t know in advance what type of PR problem may crop up. But you can be prepared with the following:
- An up-to-date list of key media contacts — in both your community and your industry — who are willing to listen to your side of any story
- A relationship with a trained PR professional who can help you craft appropriate responses to any problem that occurs
- A mindset that favors quick, decisive responses to PR problems rather than silence or cover-ups
Don’t Dig the Hole Any Deeper
It’s never easy or enjoyable to deal with a PR problem, so many small-business owners try to deny any wrongdoing or negative intentions. This approach is not going to help you, and it may come back to haunt you.
It’s far less painful over the long run to acknowledge the problem and work to limit any additional damage. For example, clarify any misinterpreted remarks, explain why the revealing email is not a damaging admission (if it is, apologize humbly, and also find a rationalization to make it seem less damaging), vehemently deny the lies or negative rumors, or withdraw or recall the flawed product.
A good example is Taco Bell’s handling of a lawsuit in 2011 alleging its “seasoned beef” contained only 35% of that meat. The company fired back with a coordinated PR, advertising, and online promotional campaign making much of its healthy ingredients and great taste. The scandal blew over quickly.
You can get an amazing amount of favorable mileage from an apology. Try the old standby: “I’m sorry.”
Share the Facts Widely and Openly
You can often avert an impending PR crisis by coming clean with the facts. By revealing what you did, why you did it, and what you’re doing to make the situation better, you greatly weaken the public’s propensity to speculate about unwarranted activities and unfriendly motivations.
In the Taco Bell example, above, a major element of the company’s response was to quickly came clean with details, showing that the food was actually 88% beef and 12% unspecified but delicious “secret ingredients.” Fans of the food swallowed this explanation, and a potential crisis was averted.
Revealing the details also allows you to frame the story in the most flattering way possible. Of course, it’s important to tell your story just the way you want it told, so think it through, from start to finish, before you make any public statements.
Admit When You’re Wrong
People recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and they’re generally willing to forgive. But they are far less forgiving of business owners who refuse to admit when they’re wrong.
Accept your company’s errors, whether they’re committed by you or an employee. Show that you’ve learned from your missteps: Change your policy. Take back the defective products. Hire a more reliable subcontractor. Fire the incompetent employee.
Make It Up to the People You’ve Harmed
If your PR problem has done some harm — perceived or emotional — or caused some degree of inconvenience to others, take responsibility and do your best to remedy the situation. Offer compensation or provide some special privilege. In most cases, it’s worthwhile to forge a personal link that shows your heart is in the right place.
It doesn’t hurt to laugh at yourself, either. In 2010 a Red Cross worker accidentally tweeted about drinking beer on the job, and a brief tsunami of public criticism ensued. But the Red Cross counterpunched by light-heartedely tweeting “we’ve confiscated the keys” to the liquor cabinet, and also by getting favorable cooperation from the beer company named in the tweet.
PR problems are best prevented in the first place, of course. But since that’s not always possible, prepare now — mentally, emotionally, and practically — to respond in the most sensible ways you can.