When a PR crisis hits, businesses of any size must be ready to do battle. Here’s what you should know.
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘cancel culture’ and seen it unleashed with huge impacts on everyone from companies to celebrities. And while community appetite for this kind of widespread pile-on does seem to be easing, every organisation – not just big business – is only ever one calamity away from suffering the effects of a crisis, be it relegation to momentary irrelevance or something worse, like serious reputational and financial ruin.
One misstep from a previously polished CEO, a stray comment or inappropriate action from an employee, or a single negative post gone viral online from a disgruntled customer can all inflict untold damage on an organisation – and that’s before you even consider the ever-present threat of cyber-attacks and the harm these can cause.
Each one of these situations can put a brand’s credibility and market perception firmly in the community’s crosshairs, causing damage that it can be difficult to bounce back from.
Just take 2023, which arguably provided the ultimate lessons in what not to do from a raft of big names. Just ask a certain telco, which was less “Yes” and more “No” after 10 million customers could not make or receive phone calls or access the internet for hours on end due to an outage. Their then-CEO was widely criticised for a lack of transparent, up-front communication and the crisis only deepened. This highlighted the need for sensitive, emotionally intelligent and switched-on planning and advice.
Quick! To the War Room
When a crisis does strike, it’s vital to act quickly. But sending out a hastily prepared statement is not always the best approach. Every action counts, and any response must be well-informed, considered and strategic. Otherwise you risk even further damage to a brand or individual.
Here’s where it’s important to realise that organisations – no matter their size – don’t have to go it alone.
Crisis management is a multi-stakeholder affair, with many pieces in the complex puzzle. From internal communications and marketing to human resources, the executive team and legal, it’s an all-in situation to ensure things are brought under control to emerge with brand integrity intact.
In any battle, preparation is key, so businesses need to be ready. The most critical component in your armoury must not be overlooked as a first line of defence: A crisis management plan.
Developed by professional PR and crisis communications experts, and tailored to your organisation and industry, this plan is your bible – laying out what to do in any given event.
This includes everything from who’s on the crisis team and where media inquiries should be directed to who should step up as the official spokesperson.
Other factors to cover off include pre-planning the communication channels you can open up to deal with anyone impacted by the crisis – for example extending the hours your contact centre operates
It’s also vital to ensure all employees – not only those directly involved – have a level of understanding of what should be done, and what shouldn’t. It can be tempting for staff to weigh in on social media debates and talk openly with colleagues when something juicy is going on, but it’s essential for the rules of engagement to be clear, shared widely and followed strictly.
If the crisis involves a cyber security breach, the protocol intensifies – with speed of response even more critical. We’re a connected society, always on, and while this can be beneficial to brand exposure, it’s also what keeps business owners and CEOs up at night, as they are liable when things hit the fan.
Among the unique factors to consider in a cyber security breach crisis comms plan are how you’ll identify exactly who has been impacted and how you will let them know what information has been accessed and what steps they need to take to shore up their privacy and safety.
That said, a crisis need not always end in complete failure. History has shown us many examples of potentially fatal flaws handled in in such a way that the pivot actually leads to growth, higher profitability or more positive perception. It’s all in the creative execution.
In a 2023 example, amid a supply-chain-driven chicken shortage in the UK, a certain fried chook purveyor plucked victory from the jaws of a PR disaster when it unveiled a campaign to say “FCK, we’re sorry, we’ve run out of chickens”. Bringing a touch of cheeky colour into the situation quickly calmed public sentiment and turned a potential nightmare around. It is the stuff of PR legend.
When it comes to publicity, not all of it is good. But when it comes to crisis management, with forethought, strategy, some emotional intelligence and creativity, smart publicity can lead organisations through trouble to triumph.