Is there really no such thing as bad publicity? How to respond to a PR Crisis

Over the years we’ve seen brands land themselves in trouble, which has triggered controversy across social platforms and attracted negative media coverage at the brand’s expense.

If you work in PR, you’re at the centre of company communications and responsible for building your brand’s image – including when things don’t go smoothly. Whether it’s a campaign that backfires or an industry upset that you have no control over, you’re responsible for managing the relationship between the brand and the public.

Dealing with a PR crisis requires a particular set of skills and a careful approach. Here, we offer tips on how to turn around a media scandal and analyse some of the most famous examples of PR upsets in recent years.

1. Be authentic and transparent

Source: Giphy

When something goes wrong, it’s almost always best to throw your hands up admit that mistakes have been made. Explain how you got into the situation and what the brand’s original intentions were.

If you lie, deny, or ignore the problem, you can bet that your audience will see through it – and punish you accordingly.

Honesty might not be ‘sexy’, but it encourages empathy from the public and the media. Showing a genuine and human approach can strike a chord with people’s emotions and is the first step in salvaging your brand’s reputation (and clawing back any revenue hits).

Case study: Virgin Galactic

Sadly, in 2014 a Virgin Galactic test flight went horrifically wrong, killing one pilot and critically injuring the other. This crisis could have brought the company and owner Richard Branson to ruins.

In this time of anguish, as the face of the brand, Branson handled the crisis comms himself, delivering a heartfelt response to the event via Twitter:

“Thoughts with all @virgingalactic & Scaled, thanks for all your messages of support. I’m flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team.”

After sending out an immediate message to the public, he later published a blog post that afternoon, explaining the details of the event and what had happened. This ensured there was no media speculation, allowing the brand to retain some control over press coverage.

His compassion and transparency helped revive the Virgin brand, showing humanity during the tragic situation.

2. Act quickly: Speed is your saviour

The longer you wait to respond to a problem, the more time you leave for people and the media to speculate, form opinions, and develop their own version of what’s happened.

Always act quickly to control the story. Waiting in hopes that it will disappear could allow things to spiral beyond your control and damage your brand’s reputation unnecessarily.  

The way you respond will depend on the channels you use and the severity of the incident. A simple Tweet followed by a press release can be enough to show your audience that you’re aware of the situation and are willing to engage with them about it. If the situation is particularly serious, you may need to upscale your comms accordingly.

In any instance, make sure to discuss your response with the relevant teams and ask someone to look at it objectively, to ensure it delivers the right message.

Case study: United Airlines

One PR crisis that has gone down in history for its poor execution and slow response comes from United Airlines. It led to the company’s lowest level of brand perception in 10 years and a huge drop in customer loyalty.

United Airlines’ PR crisis began when a video went viral back in 2017. The content shows a passenger being forced off the plane aggressively, all due to the company overbooking the scheduled fight.

After some intense backlash and hateful comments online, the issue could have been handled swiftly with the right PR action. However, instead of a heartfelt apology, the CEO of the company tweeted:

I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

The public rejected this cold and meaningless approach, and it wasn’t until there were significant threats to boycott the company that United Airlines decided to take full responsibility of its actions. But by this time, the damage was done.

3. An apology goes a long way

Source: Giphy

When managing a PR crisis, an apology goes a long way. If you as a brand are responsible, apologise so that the public knows just how sorry you are for the event that occurred.

Keep your apology simple and genuine – avoid longwinded corporate terminology and don’t try to defend yourself within the same statement. It may seem obvious, but many apologies can come across as cold and disheartening, which doesn’t always sit well with consumers.

If possible, go one step further and inform your audience that you’ve taken action to prevent the same mistakes from happening again.

Case Study: Starbucks

Starbucks had an incident in May 2018, when a member of staff called the police to arrest two black men in a Philadelphia store. The men had sat down in the coffee shop waiting for a third member of their party to arrive. They were set to have a business meeting and were yet to order any drinks.

Despite a member of staff being told they were waiting to start a meeting, racial bias kicked in and they called the police for the two men to be arrested.

As soon as the story went public Howard Schultz, Chairman of Starbucks, said:

“I’m embarrassed, ashamed. I think what occurred was reprehensible at every single level. I take it very personally, as everyone in our company does, and we’re committed to making it right.”

Schultz was quick to put his hands up and make a sincere apology about how his staff dealt with the incident. His frank response came across very genuine and his actions afterwards reinforced this message – following the incident, he took action to prevent the crisis happening again, shutting 8,000 stores for a day to train his staff about unconscious bias.

The way you respond to a PR crisis will vary depending on the circumstances and severity of the situation. However, these examples show how honest and transparent communications, a quick response, and a genuine apology can really help limit any damage to your brand.

Learn more about how our Digital PR team can help to grow your brand and check out our blog for more actionable PR insight and advice.

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