Crisis Management in Public Relations

Put simply, a PR crisis is when you or your business receives negative or damaging publicity or a whole host of unwanted social media mentions.

But, of course, not every issue is a PR crisis. A bad review is easily manageable. But a bad review that goes viral on Twitter, gets millions of hits on YouTube and is mentioned on the 10 O’Clock news?  Yep, that’s a PR crisis.

A PR crisis is seen as being disruptive and damaging. Damaging for your brand’s reputation and how your business is viewed by stakeholders, customers, prospects and the industry as a whole. And damaging for the bottom line.

Crisis Management in PR

So when your organisation finds itself in the middle of a crisis and your reputation is on the line, PR crisis management is needed: a set of actions that are followed in order to minimise the damage, which are carried out by a team of PR professionals who can work quickly and effectively.

What type of crises need immediate PR crisis management?

  • Product recalls for defective and unsafe goods or issues with availability
  • Corporate irregularities including deception, theft, fraud, corruption
  • Workplace harassment including intimidating, offensive, abusive and discriminating behaviour
  • Lawsuits and legal actions
  • Workplace incidents including accidents or negligence
  • Sudden resignations by key board members causing share values to tumble

And, of course, social media blunders. There’s everything from the over-enthusiastic intern (it’s always an ‘intern’) who hijacks the hashtags of other brands or world events to publicise their products (remember Habitat’s Twitter fail?). To poorly-timed pre-scheduled auto-tweets. Who can forget Tesco supermarket tweeting: “It’s sleepy time so we’re off to hit the hay. See you at 8am for more #TescoTweets” sent in middle of the horsemeat scandal.

Then there are companies that see their well-intentioned hashtag used to bash the company. McDonald’s got caught out when they used the #McDStories hashtag to encourage customers to share their Maccy D stories. And they did. “Hospitalized for food poisoning in 1989. Never ate there again and became a vegetarian. Should have sued #McDStories.” Ouch.

And then at the other end of the scale, we see big corporate executives getting into social media spats. If he was an employee, Tesla’s Elon Musk would have been given the boot by now because of his damaging Twitter meltdowns. But he owns the company. So that’s that. But his board must be pulling their hair out half the time.

How PR professionals help in a crisis

Preparation is key to successfully navigating a crisis. And that’s where your crisis management PR team come in. Before the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan, there should be a PR crisis management plan in place so that everyone knows what actions are going to be taken and who’s going to take them.

Your crisis management public relations team, maybe a PR consultant you already work with. Or, members of a public relations firm. Or, perhaps it’s an in-house team. But the plan your PR professionals have in place will give you a better chance of minimising the impact of negative publicity when a PR crisis occurs.

The PR crisis management plan

1. Have the right team in place

Who should be notified? Does the CEO need to know first? And how severe does the crisis have to be? Mistimed tweets can be handled by the head of marketing. But CEOs need to be told about oil spills and aircraft accidents immediately.

Decide in advance who will lead the crisis team. Ideally this is the CEO. But it could be the head of your legal team or HR team. And appoint a spokesperson in advance. Reacting to a situation with one voice is critical rather than releasing bits of information in dribs and drabs from different departments. Your spokesperson needs to be media trained beforehand and confident in front of the press, as well as being suitably empathetic and detail orientated.

And have a clear plan around communication. Will the marketing team carry on managing social media message, online content and blog writing? Or, will the crisis PR team take over, as well as issuing ongoing news releases?

2. Take responsibility

A PR crisis has occurred. Don’t try to cover it up and hope it goes away. It won’t. Don’t fuel the fire either by saying ‘no comment’ or issuing half-hearted denials. Instead, manage the situation quickly and professionally by issuing a news release, taking immediate responsibility and acknowledging people’s concerns. Your response has to be multi-channel: so it should be shared across the board, including the press, social media platforms, TV and radio, and on your own website.

Once an apology has been issued, follow-up with a plan of action. Share what steps will be taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again, whether that’s organisation-wide training (see Starbucks), or a change of policy (see Pret a Manger).

3. Get ahead of the game

Speed is of the essence. Don’t wait until Monday when something is kicking off on a Saturday. Don’t sit back and wait for the story to get bigger and bigger before stepping in. If there’s even a whiff of a scandal or a bubbling PR crisis step in and issue a statement explaining what’s happened and what your organisation is doing to put it right. Saying ‘you’ll look into it’ won’t wash and ultimately, damage your brand.

4. Be social media savvy

Your organisation might not be very active on Instagram or Twitter, but your customers may be. There may be a firestorm building on a platform you don’t use. But even if you’re not on a particular platform for marketing purposes, your social media team should have a plan in place for dealing with customer complaints and comments on those platforms. If there are spikes of negativity or increased mentions, make sure there’s a plan in place to pro-actively respond. Encourage CEOs to issue prepared apologies on social. But discourage them from going rogue and answering customer complaints directly.

5. Keep everyone in the loop

Keep all relevant stakeholders up-to-date with the crisis as it unfolds, what’s being done to manage it and by who. If possible, have daily meetings or conference calls so everyone’s on top of the situation. During the KFC PR crisis, the company held a daily call for a 100-strong team and updated them on the latest developments, as well as regular meetings at 7am, 11am, 2pm and 7pm. Meghan Farren KFC’s CMO, spoke to the franchises daily so they had the right information to hand and could inform staff and customers.

6. Be prepared

Having a PR crisis management plan in place is like having insurance: you hope you never have to use it but you should have it anyway.

Flailing around because you’re not prepared for a crisis makes a situation go from bad to worse and looks like you’re hiding something. Know who should be notified, who the spokesperson is and how you will communicate a response. But also know you can’t prepare for everything.

PR crisis management case studies: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

If there’s one thing we know about Joe Public is that they’ll forgive a mistake if the crisis is handled honestly, quickly and with humility. Take a look at these crisis management case studies.

PR Crisis – The Good Case Studies

KFC shortage

Who doesn’t love the finger lickin’ taste of KFC and a big bucket of chicken after a night out? But back in 2018, the unthinkable happened: the company ran out of chicken and stores across the UK and Ireland were temporarily closed. The reason for the shortages: problems with the new delivery partner DHL, which led to warehouse delays.

With a PR crisis looming, the company quickly set up a web page that listed those stores that were still open for chicken. And it took out a series of newspaper ads, that included a bucket of chicken with the KFC logo rearranged to read FCK.

The cheeky ads and the quick apology were well received and even won an award.

Starbucks training

Starbuck store frontage

Coffee giant Starbucks were also on the end of some unwanted bad publicity in 2018, when the store manager at a Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police to arrest two African-American customers who were waiting for a friend and had yet to purchase a drink. The incident sparked widespread condemnation and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz was quick to issue an apology.

He said: ‘we’re better than this’, closed all 8,000 locations for a day and made 175,000 employees attend a racial bias training day.

Pepsi pulled

It may seem strange to include Pepsi in the good section. After all, the TV ad which kicked off their PR crisis has been dubbed the worst ad ever. But it’s their response to the crisis that should be applauded. This ad starring model and Kardashian tribe alumni Kendall Jenner kicked off a new Pepsi ad campaign back in 2017. The short film featured Jenner leaving her modelling gig, casting off her blonde wig and walking through a Black Lives Matter-style protest to offer a Police Officer a can of Pepsi.  It was created in-house rather than through an ad agency and was utterly tone deaf.

The brand initially issued a statement defending the campaign saying, “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.”

But after a barrage of complaints, the TV ad was pulled less than 24 hours later, and the company issued another statement saying: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise.”

The ad should never have aired in the first place. But at least Pepsi were quick to pull it and offer an apology.

PR Crisis – The Bad Case Studies

BP Oil Spill

The BP oil crisis back in 2010 was a spectacular example of crisis PR management gone wrong. Following the biggest oil spill in US history and untold damage to the environment, BP was woeful in its response. Their website was sadly lacking in useful information and they allegedly offered potential plaintiffs $5,000 not to issue a lawsuit.

But, most famously, their lack of empathy was personified by BP’s CEO Tony Hayward who declared “I’d like my life back” as if this was all just a major convenience. He was asked to step down three months later. (With a £1M pay-off.)

TSB IT Meltdown

TSB suffered an IT nightmare when they attempted to upgrade their computer system in April 2018. First, they announced there would be no access to online banking from Friday 20 April to Sunday to 22 April. But this quickly turned into Tuesday, Wednesday and then nearly a week of frustration. TSB’s CEO Paul Pester apologised via Twitter. But customers looking for more information were put on hold for hours or told to go to a TSB branch, which due to branch closures, was 15 miles away for some customers.

Then Pester committed the biggest PR crisis crime: he blamed parent company and IT provider Sabadell, saying it was their fault.

Even a month later, TSB customers were still having issues. The IT meltdown cost TSB £330M and the poor PR crisis management cost Pester his job. The Treasury Select Committee described the bank’s response to this PR crisis as “complacent and misleading”.

Pret Tragedy

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse had an allergic reaction and tragically died on a flight from Heathrow in 2016 after eating a poorly-labelled sandwich bought from a Pret A Manger at the airport.

Pret made the decision not to communicate the story until it hit the headlines during the inquest. It also came to light there had been nine similar allergic reactions recorded in the year prior to her death. Pret’s initial reaction was to blame a smaller supplier for the labelling. Not good.

Following the backlash, Pret rolled out new labelling on all their packaging from May 2019. Clive Schlee, chief executive at Pret said: “We said we would learn from the past and make meaningful changes. This plan brings together some of the most important changes we have been making to help customers with allergies.”

In addition, Natasha’s Law will come into force in the summer of 2021 requiring all food businesses to clearly label the full ingredients of pre-packaged food.

Boeing Blunder

And lastly on our bad PR list is Boeing’s tone deaf response to the tragic 737 MAX PR crisis in March 2018.

Following two crashes featuring Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in 2018 and 2019, which cost hundreds of lives, Boeing steadfastly refused to ground other aircraft and dismissed consumers’ concerns. It turned out there was an autopilot system that engaged during take-off which was susceptible to error and pilots hadn’t been warned.

Eventually, aviation authorities grounded all 737 MAX 8 aircraft pending investigations, which to date has cost the business $900M in financial terms. But the reputational damage and loss of confidence in the brand could cost them more.

For more PR crisis management disasters, read When PR goes T*its up: 2019 edition.

PR Crises – The Ugly Case Study

There can only be one entry in this category: Our very own Royal Family’s Prince Andrew. If you haven’t seen the toe-curling, hide-behind-cushion interview yet in all its glory, you can watch this PR disaster unfold here.

It’s a textbook example of what NOT to do when in the midst of a PR crisis. Don’t be like Prince Andrew.

Be prepared and have a PR crisis management plan in place for your organisation.

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