How To Tell The Difference Between A Company Disaster & A PR Disaster

What Ari­zona, Ama­zon, and Ash­ley Madi­son have in com­mon (hint: it ain’t a PR prob­lem).

Aly Saxe By Aly Saxe from CEO & Founder. Join the discussion » 0 comments

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?

Aly Saxe

Written by Aly Saxe

CEO & Founder, CEO & Founder

Aly Saxe is the founder and CEO of Iris, software for agencies and in-house PR teams. She founded Ubiquity Public Relations, an agency representing high-growth B2B tech startups, in 2007. Follow her at @aly_saxe. Aly Saxe is the founder and CEO of Iris, software for agencies and in-house PR teams. She founded Ubiquity Public Relations, an agency representing high-growth B2B tech startups, in 2007.

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