Updated 31 May 2022
Your business’s reputation is a valuable asset, and once damaged it is hard to repair. Your response to negative publicity can make or break your reputation, so it’s important to have a plan for dealing with a potential PR crisis.
PR crisis management can be seen as a sub-area of disaster recovery, though it can be one of the hardest to get right. A famous example of a PR crisis handled successfully is when the restaurant chain KFC ran out of chicken. The company handled the crisis with a combination of humility and witty advertising, and against the odds turned it into a PR triumph. The secret ingredient is having a clear plan in advance for how you will respond in a range of scenarios.
Your public relations (PR) activity is one of the two main channels that you use to communicate with the general public (the other being marketing). Social media has made PR much quicker, easier and cheaper, but also raises the risk of a business losing control of its messaging. For instance, one disgruntled customer can turn an isolated incident into a viral story in a matter of hours.
A PR crisis is any negative story that risks running out of control and damaging your reputation. Typical causes might be:
If a customer is physically harmed in any way and believes this is due to your product or service, you could be open to accusations of negligence. You can take out business insurance to protect you against customer litigation – however, it can’t save you from negative publicity.
If you handle customer data or take payments online, then protecting their information and/or payment details is of paramount importance. Always use the most trusted payment providers, and ensure that they will take responsibility for any data breach. This is not an area to cut corners.
Poorly planned or executed marketing can run the risk of making false claims – often by accident. Examples of this might be ambiguous wording or careless phrases (e.g. ‘the best’) that consumers or competitors may take issue with. Always double-check every piece of marketing and look for how it could be misinterpreted.
A small grievance can quickly snowball out of control if you handle it badly or fail to address it at all. Dismissing or ignoring customer concerns may often lead to them escalating their complaints via social media, which can lead to a ‘pile-on’ of similar complaints (which may or may not be genuine – by this stage it makes little difference, as the damage is done). The good news is that if you do deal with complaints quickly, the unhappy customer can become a source of positive PR.
Quite simply, if your product or service isn’t up to scratch, people will call you out on it. For this reason it’s good to invite direct customer feedback and to engage with it, so you can address any quality issues quickly and let the world know that things have improved.
Some bad PR is unavoidable for any business. It becomes a crisis when it happens on a large scale and/or is unexpected, and/or you don’t have a procedure in place for dealing with it. Fortunately there are ways to mitigate against all those circumstances.
You need to understand exactly what has happened before you can formulate a response.
Next, assess the context of the crisis in more detail. For instance, does the situation require an apology, or has there been a misunderstanding that simply needs some clarification? Will your response be welcomed, or will it be seen as arguing or too defensive?
Acknowledge when something has gone wrong. This doesn’t mean admitting you were at fault (though if you really were, it’s best to say so). Demonstrating that you want to put things right nevertheless will show that you care about your customers, so can be excellent PR.
By acknowledging the problem, you take control of the crisis prevent others from dictating the narrative. Whether it is a bad review or the material failure of a product, if you set the tone of the conversation early you can shield your business reputation from a lot of damage.
If you take too long to respond, you can create the impression that you don’t care or are withholding information. Take care to strike a balance between reacting promptly and rushing to respond (which could lead to the wrong approach). You may wish to issue a sympathetic but neutral ‘holding statement’ to buy yourself some time to respond properly. The statement might say that you are aware of the problem, regret any inconvenience caused, and are looking into it.
Tell any stakeholders about what you are doing to fix the problem, and (perhaps) how it will influence your working practices moving forward. Details help, so make sure you propose a solution that is measurable, realistic, achievable and time-specific – and stick to it.
Treat the problem with seriousness, but learn to recognise when humour can help to lighten the mood. If you've made a silly mistake, a funny way of acknowledging and apologising for this can win customer sympathy. However, make sure any lightheartedness is backed up with real sincerity and contrition – any laughter must be clearly directed at yourself, not at the complaint or the customer.
Here are some famous names demonstrating how to respond to a negative PR storm. Though these are big brands (and therefore large-scale examples), the general principles being applied can work equally well for small businesses.
A single traffic incident resulted in KFC’s chicken warehouse becoming temporarily cut off, with the result that stores across the UK ran out of chicken. A household name company running out of its only major product ought to have been a PR disaster – and for a few days it was.
But KFC responded with a combination of humility and humour – most famously with an ad that rearranged the letters of their logo to ‘FCK’. They also kept up a stream of communications and a new innovation that let consumer check the chicken supplies of their local restaurants.
One evening in May 2012, the major bank HSBC was hit by IT problems affecting its cash machines, debit cards and online payments. The banking crisis of 2008 was still recent enough to make some people fear the worst, so HSBC knew it had to respond quickly to calm the situation.
HSBC immediately took control of the narrative via social media, with its most senior figures putting out statements and teaming up with journalists to ensure the clearest possible messaging to the public. As a result the incident was quickly resolved, with few complaints and no panic.
In 1993 a customer claimed to have found a syringe in a can of Diet Pepsi, which led to fears about the product and 50 similar cases being reported. Pepsi responded with a detailed video campaign showing their canning process, while successfully debunking all 50 follow-up stories and casting serious doubt over the first case that started it all. Sales quickly bounced back from a 2 per cent slump.
Almost by definition, a PR crisis takes you by surprise. Therefore, make sure you have a response plan for what to do if one arises. This prevents the initial ‘flapping around’ and panic that can be the natural first reaction, and avoids fuelling the crisis with inappropriate, hurried responses.
Your PR crisis plan should include the following:
Handled well, a PR crisis can become an opportunity by demonstrating to neutral onlookers how well you interact with your customers. Having a plan will mean you are more likely to come up smelling of roses.