There are countless examples every day that happen in the media and fall under the umbrella of “bad PR” or “crisis management.” Typically, I would define a PR Crisis as something that could cripple your reputation, sales, brand or business. It could be anything as seemingly benign as a customer of yours posting a negative review on Yelp or Trip Advisor, all the way up to highly-public litigation involving executives or employees (this Kleiner Perkins story comes to mind).
In my little corner of the universe, I do see countless examples of bad publicity which, let’s face it, happens. It just does, and sometimes you simply cannot control it. Like most everything else in life, however, it is really more about how you deal with bad publicity than the bad publicity itself. And, unfortunately, how a lot of businesses handle crisis management often is worse than the actual publicity itself.
We had a client recently that had some bad publicity, through no fault or negligence of their own. It got me thinking that there really are a few important steps I always recommend to clients in such cases which are totally different than the typical PR playbook over the years:
1) I just mentioned this, but when bad PR happens, it is important to have your “come to Jesus” moment and understand whether that bad PR is legitimate (i.e. through thought-out, negligent actions) or whether that bad PR is accidental (i.e. you’re a hotel with a sterling reputation but one of the maids forgot to leave fresh soap in the bathroom). Depending on which bucket it falls into will determine how to do crisis management tactically, but there are some overall strategies which still hold.
2) Don’t deny, deny, deny. When I was a younger, more naive executive, I had people tell me that the best strategy is always to deny whatever the bad publicity is. The image conjured up most recently is that of Roger Clemens (recently acquitted of all criminal charges for lying under oath and taking performance enhancement drugs). He denied the allegations from day 1, and it worked. Or did it? He’s still guilty in the court of public opinion and probably will be for at least a generation of baseball fans. And this isn’t the 90′s when O.J. Simpson was acquitted, because today the court of public opinion is arguably more influential when it comes to your brand. So if you’re a business, you can deny the publicity all you want and maybe win on paper, but don’t forget the court of public opinion. If you even look crooked, it matters and it matters huge. Especially if you have no real track record of doing the right thing by people.
3) Do not lie. You can absolutely respond to bad publicity with a cogent, personal response that is well-written and even has a shade or two of grey in it. But the minute you just flat-out lie to people, they know. Why? Again, because of the times. It is quite likely someone, somewhere, will be able to call you out. Too many people are interconnected and social media is too prominent in today’s culture to NOT have someone out there who will always be against you. I will reference the Roger Clemens case again, and ask you if you remember Andy Pettitte’s involvement. No? Well, it is because the minute someone accused him of taking performance enhancers, he said “yep, you’re right, I did it and here’s why I did, and I’m sorry, I know it was wrong, I won’t do it again.” The story, for him – a Hall of Fame-worthy pitcher – pretty much ended shortly thereafter. I know as a sports fan the first thing I think of when it comes to Pettitte is that he was a great, clutch pitcher who handled himself mostly pretty well. This is not the same thought I have of Roger Clemens. Sometimes, you’re guilty even if you’re technically not, and it has to do with how you handle bad PR.
4) The direct approach always wins. The last thing in the world you want to do in the face of bad publicity is nothing. The stakes are just too high to sit back and ignore things and think they will go away. They won’t.
5) Have a personality. If your response to bad publicity seems rote or too mechanical (I’ve even seen automated responses to emails!), this paints a negative image right away. Here’s an analogy. Do you personally lend more credence to a defense or defensive argument that is written and posted somewhere or one that has the protagonist in front of camera or webcam answering questions that aren’t scripted? This is a very uncomfortable approach for many, but this is by far the more effective approach. You could write the best defense in the history of journalism, but it will never win over getting out in front of people and taking the heat.
PR crisis management is becoming more and more of an art and science, rather than just a science. In the old days, there was a script. Here’s what you should do, here’s the statement you should write, here’s what PR experts think you should communicate. Well, some of those principles still hold true in certain cases but those cases are becoming fewer and fewer.
The fact is that we can thank technology and an era of transparency for changing the game, or at least altering it. Business owners and brands have to respond in kind. You can’t just sweep bad publicity under the rug, or try and do any type of bait-and-switch tactics. It just doesn’t work.
Opt for transparency, personality and over-communication when in doubt.