Dos and Don’ts of dealing with a public relations disaster

Scandals. For those of us on the outside, they can be a guilty pleasure. CEO embezzles millions; prestigious doctor lies about medical degree; porn star files a lawsuit against a sitting president – hey, pass the popcorn!

But when the scandal hits too close to home, it may not be quite so entertaining. Corporate scandals are nothing new: in 1494 the family-owned Medici Bank – at one point the largest bank in Europe -- went under after racking up large debts due, in part, to the family’s extravagant lifestyle. In 1982, Tylenol’s share of the pain relief market dropped from 35 per cent to eight per cent in a matter of weeks after drug tampering in Chicago killed a few consumers. And in April 2018, the arrest of two black men after a Starbucks employee called the police when they asked to use the bathroom created worldwide headlines and protests.

What is new – or “newish” – is the reach these scandals can have, thanks to social media and the ability to share the incident quickly with the rest of the world. Add to that today’s culture of opinion and outrage (aka the comments section) and any company with even a whiff of scandal can find themselves dealing with a PR disaster.

Over its lifetime, any business is susceptible to some kind of negative PR issue that can damage its reputation, lose customers or, at worst, close its doors. If this happens to your company, the extent of the damage can be determined by what you do – or don’t do – to address it.

Do acknowledge and apologize. But don’t wait too long to do it.

· If you take your time in admitting your mistake, your apology won’t come off as sincere. The public will think you’ve known about the scandal for some time and are only now admitting it because you got caught. Own up to the problem as soon as you discover it.

  • Don’t give a non-apology. We’ve all heard them. “I’m sorry if my actions were misconstrued…” “I apologize if you were offended by…” Never put the onus on your audience as if it’s their fault they’re so upset. Express real concern and include a sincere intent to remedy the problem and do better in the future.

Do your research. Analyze the damage and keep track of what people are saying.

· Stay on top of what the media/social media is saying about you. Monitor mentions of your business online and find out if your press is overwhelmingly negative or if there’s something positive you can build on. Knowing what you’re up against will help you shape a strategy for restoring your reputation.

· Find out what your customers are saying. Depending on the size of the scandal, you may need to track which customers have left you and who have stuck with you. If you have a customer inbox where people leave comments, track all of them on spreadsheet so you can see what you’re dealing with. And do respond to everyone. Remaining silent sends a message that you don’t care about their concerns.

Do the work to change the narrative. Don’t let negativity fester.

· You can’t control what people are saying about you, but you can control your own communications, including your website, social media pages and other Internet channels. Start by posting the aforementioned apology, then begin redirecting the story by taking up space with positive messages.

· Share progress on the steps your company is taking to undo any hurt you caused – and do maintain regular communications with your audience on all channels you own. Don’t give any appearance that you’re going to sweep this scandal under the rug.

Do be consistent and do be patient.

It took you a long time to build your strong reputation. It may take a while to recover. The good news is that if you do the work -- deal with the situation head on, take ownership, and prove you’re sincere in fixing what led to the problem and taking action to grow from your learnings, there’s a good change you may come back stronger than ever.


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