How to prevent a public relations crisis?

If there is one company that has a public relations crisis right now it is the brewing company Corona. The AB Inbev brand can’t brew its famous beer anymore as the brewery in Mexico has been closed down due to the Coronavirus. And even if they could brew their beers, their sales would suffer from the lockdown and the brand’s name. Add to that all the fake news about rebranding and “research” saying that 38% of Americans wouldn’t buy Corona beer due to the brand name, and you have a textbook definition of a public relations crisis.

How to prevent a public relations crisis

At the same time, the first quarter of 2020 in the US was better than the same quarter in 2019.

How is that possible, you ask?

The answer is that this is in part due to the well-executed public relations strategy to separate myths from facts to restore customer trust.

In this blog, Jennifer Delano and Dirkjan Hupkes will explain how you can use public relations and social media to combat a public relations crisis. You’ll learn how such a crisis can arise and how your company can prepare for it. At the end of this blog post, you’ll get three tips on how to prevent a public relations crisis.

What is a public relations crisis and why is it important?

Public relations means telling the story about your company and yourself as an entrepreneur. Storytelling has always been the best way to transfer information. This is because stories tend to stick better with the audience than pure facts. This is why public relations is a good way to attract the attention of your ideal customer.

Furthermore, you can use public relations to build, improve and protect your reputation in the media and on social media. A well-executed PR strategy can help you build a good online reputation. And a good reputation (both online and offline) results in a better performance of your company. The Corona example above proves that.

What is a public relations crisis?

A public relations crisis is a situation where the reputation of your company is damaged. This can be caused by your company or by external circumstances like the Coronavirus. The result is a loss of trust from customers, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders. Often this took years to build. However, in a public relations crisis, trust can disappear in a matter of seconds, just like your reputation.

Some people argue that all publicity is good for the company, no matter if it is good or bad publicity. This is not true. A public relations crisis can impact your entire company and the way you run it. For instance, it can make marketing and sales virtually impossible.

As a result, it can destroy all the hard work you put into building a good reputation. And in the end, it can mean the end of your company. Just look at what happened to Enron and Cambridge Analytica. 

What is the cause of a public relations crisis?

From a public relations point of view, we run risks every single day. We’re only human and making a mistake is easy. As we live in a hyper-connected world, the news of these mistakes spreads faster than ever before. 

A public relations crisis can be caused by a misguided remark of a manager. Other causes can be an emotional response to a negative review on your website or social media, or by an advertisement that is interpreted differently from how it was intended. Because a screenshot is easy to make and it’s even easier to take them out of context. And so, the same media that helped you build a reputation, can help destroy it. Nothing personal, it’s just news and news is business.

In some cases the cause of a public relations crisis can be outside your company, For instance, industry news or news about the county you operate in can do a lot of damage. Just look at the impact of the Coronavirus on companies large and small.

How to prevent a PR crisis and how to solve one?

For large corporations, a Public Relations crisis is no joke. But they have specialized staff at their disposal to help solve the issue. Or they can afford a specialized PR agency to do part of the work for them. So in the end, their reputation will often recover from the crisis. Although that may take some time.

Small and mid-sized companies don’t have that luxury while the impact on the company is often exponentially larger. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot do something in terms of prevention and preparation. We’ve listed a number of things that you should arrange for so you can effectively deal with a public relations crisis.

Develop a crisis management and communication plan

First of all, it is important to have a written crisis management and communications plan. This plan should describe how your organization handles a PR crisis. This includes how the team that is dealing with the crisis is composed. In addition, you will need to appoint spokespersons who can represent the company towards customers, suppliers and the media. And you need to designate a person who should inform employees about what’s going on. These may be people who do this regularly, e.g. account managers, marketing managers, and HR. But it may also be different people from the same departments. The composition of the team could also vary by situation as the expertise needed may vary.

Once you’ve set up a crisis team, it is also important to discuss how and where the crisis team will communicate with each other. This could be done in a physical location, e.g. a meeting room in the building. As people are becoming more accustomed to online meetings, this may also be an option. And in case you have a decentralized team, it is probably your only option.

As situations vary you will need different people from your company depending on the situation at hand. So, make a list beforehand who will be involved for which topic. This will help you find information more easily.

Make sure you can listen and respond to messages and rumors on social media

If there is one place to learn quickly about what is said about your company it is social media. Therefore it is important to determine upfront who will follow what is happening with regards to your social media profiles. This includes the responses to your own communications but also messages that customers send to you to find out what’s happening. Within Facebook, there is the Inbox function that you can use to handle communication on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. Also, it’s worth setting up lists on Twitter and following hashtags on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram to learn what the sentiment is.

Make sure you can effectively respond to a public relations crisis

During a public relations crisis, it is very important to be able to respond quickly and effectively. This requires that you use all available channels, including your social media profiles and your website.

Having a separate crisis page on your website can help you publish information about what is happening in a centralized way. This page remains hidden until a crisis happens and you can use the page to publish press releases, official responses, links to video messages, etc. 

On your social media profiles, we recommend that you draft some empty messages with just the link to the crisis page in it. This way, you don’t have to find the URL every time and you can’t forget it either. In addition, it helps you to make sure upfront that layout and branding are properly aligned with the website.

Third, ensure that you can proactively approach the media with your messages. To that end, you need a standard press release and a list of relevant press outlets and journalists. Don’t forget to put the URL of your crisis page in there and refer them to that page for the latest information. 

And while you’re working on a press release, make sure you update the press page of your company’s website. Especially in a crisis, you do not want journalists to call someone who has left the company. For a larger public relations crisis, it may be beneficial to retain a PR-agent. If you do this upfront, you can scale up the support from them easier. Also, it avoids that you need to start looking for a PR agent in the midst of a crisis. Chances are that at that point they’re either too busy or they don’t want to represent you because it’’s bad for their brand.

What to do during a crisis

Crisis communications is one of the most difficult things out there. The current COVID-19 crisis proves how difficult it is to get the facts right, even for a government. This is why it’s important to tell the same story to all stakeholders in your company and to do so at the same time. Having one story improves the credibility of it. 

The story you tell everyone has to be the right story. This may mean that a situation develops differently from what you previously expected. If this happens, you should be open and honest about this as people don’t like to feel stupid or being lied to.

In every crisis, there will be rumors. And it is important to respond quickly to rumors if they’re false. But even more important is to make sure that your story checks out. This is why it is important to have clear arrangements as to who collects information inside the company and who then comes with the official statements.

When you advertise on social media, it is wise to stop doing that. This should at least stop until it is clear what is happening. During a crisis situation, the ads are likely to lead to the wrong kind of interaction with your customers. For instance, during the first two weeks of the lockdown because of the Coronavirus, the municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn continued to advertise for a competition about the name of the new library. This was a waste of money as the ads were useless and led to negative feedback. It also came across as tone-deaf. However, in some cases, it may be beneficial to boost your messages with news about the crisis with some advertising budget. 

Evaluate the public relations crisis

Once the crisis is over, it is normal for everyone to relax and go back to their old ways and activities. If you do that, you waste a good opportunity to learn from the public relations crisis and to make improvements or adjustments to your plan. Now that would be a waste.

Therefore, it is important to evaluate the crisis afterward. This evaluation should not only focus on what went wrong and what could be improved. It is also a tool to see what went well. So, you can document these elements in your plan. 

Finally, the evaluation is a great moment to thank all the people who helped your company solve the problems with flowers, a gift card, and well-deserved applause.

Three bonus tips that can help you prevent a public relations crisis

Now that we’ve given you input on how to prepare for and deal with a public relations crisis, it is time to give you three extra tips. These tips will help you perform even better in a crisis situation.

  1. Link your public relations efforts with online reputation management. An integrated approach to public relations and online reputation management will help you respond adequately with almost all crisis situations.
  2. You operate in a globally and digitally connected world, which is heavily polarized. As a result, even a small, seemingly trivial misunderstanding may be the cause of major upheaval. So, make sure that you don’t make assumptions and avoid responding out of emotion. This would make things worse.
  3. Everyone can see everything. That includes all comments, all responses, both negative and positive. Because a well-documented point of view and openness to the opinions of others may actually enhance your online reputation.

About Jennifer Delano

Jennifer Delano is a passionate, kick-ass public relations specialist from The Netherlands. She is the driving force behind her DelanoPR agency. Supported by an enthusiastic team of professionals, she helps her customers by attracting attention in (social) media. She also creates news and develops (guerilla) marketing initiatives. To make them successful, Jennifer relies on her expertise and passion for PR. In addition, Jennifer organizes workshops and learns something new every day that she can use to benefit her customers. You can find more information about Jennifer and DelanoPR at https://www.JenniferDelano.nl and https://www.DelanoPR.nl

About Dirkjan Hupkes

Dirkjan Hupkes is a reputation manager and social media buddy for webshops and startups. His goal is to make sure that his clients can tell their story in good times and in bad. He relies on 20+ years of experience in reputation and risk management to get the best possible deal for his clients. Next to his work for True Story Company and Your Social Media Buddy, Dirkjan is an avid runner. He runs the Rotterdam Marathon every year. Also, Dirkjan is the chairman of the sponsoring committee of his track and field club AAV’36. For more information, see this website or visit www.yoursocialmediabuddy.nl


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