Bad press is a funny thing. It blows open a vulnerability and exposes an organization in ways that many couldn’t imagine. It impacts stock prices. It sells tabloids. It ignites Twitter and Facebook and brings the Internet together. So what can marketing and PR teams do to address a company disaster?
The last couple of months haven’t been good for large organizations starting with the letter A.
Amazon got a healthy serving of bad press due to this New York Times article detailing its brutal working conditions. Ashley Madison suffered in the wake of a large data breach.
Then there’s Arizona. Oh my home state, you sassy thing. Governor Doug Ducey decided to launch a rebranding mission and the Internet immediately had its way with the idea.
Since all three of these situations have been the topic du jour, I found myself getting asked the question, “How should they handle this PR disaster?” I’m usually not short on words, but I was utterly speechless the first, second, and 10th time I was asked.
These are not PR disasters. These are organizational disasters. And there’s very little a good PR response can do about it.
Here’s how to tell the difference between a company disaster and a PR disaster.
The Company Disaster
Let’s revisit that Arizona rebranding proposition. Everyone across the Internet mocked it and here’s why: Arizona doesn’t have a branding problem, it has an Arizona problem. The state’s image won’t change as long as the leadership continues to put out controversial bills that offend many people.
Which brings us to the difference between an organizational disaster and a PR disaster: the first problem is so ingrained that a splash of positive media coverage and zippy new tagline won’t fix it.
Jeff Bezos can’t write a heartfelt letter that makes Amazon’s notorious workplace issues go away. Ashley Madison can’t kick sand over the revelations that most of its female “members” were fake and that it failed to delete member data as promised.
How To Address Organizational Bad Press?
The first step is talking to the leadership and making sure they recognize the challenges. If they do and have a plan to fix the inherent issues, then we can do something. If they either dismiss that there are issues, or worse, say they know there’s an issue but they aren’t going to fix it, then just stop right here.
You have a choice to make – do you want to spend your days in PR crisis mode, minimizing damage instead of overcoming it? Hey, some PR pros get their kicks out of this and if that’s your thing, more power to you. You’ll always have work! If this doesn’t sound like your dream job, and this is what your organizational leadership sounds like, then it’s time to consider a job change.
But let’s say the leadership does acknowledge the issue(s) and is ready to act. On to step two: Discovery.
It’s your job to find out what’s being done to correct the root cause of the problem. If leaders are being open and honest and committed to implementing a solution, your job is to communicate those actions to consumers.
Blog posts, social media dialogues, case studies that explore a customer problem being fixed: all of these acknowledge the core challenge while communicating the company’s investment in solving it.
The key here: these can’t be short-lived endeavors. Communication needs to be steady and consistent, possibly for a long time (months, even years).
You can measure the success of your efforts by looking at sentiment. What is the tonality of media coverage and social media engagement over time? How many negative articles and posts appear vs. positive? This is your benchmark.
The PR Disaster
A valid PR crisis differs from the above in that it’s a problem you can isolate and address. It generally won’t make or break the company brand – but it will require a smart crisis management plan.
The classic crisis communication protocols apply here.
The first step is reviewing your plan of action. Separate facts from opinions, calmly assess the situation, and devise the best plan.
After that, it’s time to respond promptly and transparently. You want to be factual and direct, whether you’re communicating in a media interview, on social media, or through your blog.
Remember, this is your opportunity to correct any inaccuracies and offer your version of the story. But you do need to be accountable and take ownership of the situation. That includes apologizing if appropriate. Don’t be defensive and don’t respond negatively to critical Facebook comments or harsh tweets.
If you don’t have all of the facts yet, avoid saying “no comment,” which can come off as secretive. It’s better to go with, “Our team is looking into that right now” or “We don’t have that information right now, but we will update you as soon as we know.”
Having clearly owned the problem, you’ll need to announce your solution. Sometimes that means aligning with a third party, such as hiring a respected security firm in the wake of a disastrous data breach.
Continue to report on your progress via blog posts, social updates, and other content. Customers have long memories and many will need to see committed and consistent improvement from you before absolving your brand of the original issue.
Develop A Crisis Plan Now
You might find it hard to imagine your organization experiencing an image catastrophe of this magnitude. But in our digital age it happens more often than you think, and it can impact company brands and personal reputations alike.
To protect yourself, it’s smart to develop a crisis plan ahead of time. Form a small team with the right leaders, communicators, and legal professionals involved.
Develop a clear plan that outlines who needs to be contacted and in what order, who makes which decisions, and who creates and distributes the messaging. You’ll be that much more prepared for crises large and small – and you’ll know how to mitigate the damage if one does occur.
Do you have a PR crisis plan to deal with bad press?