Regardless of size, most businesses face a PR crisis at one point or another. These can come up for any number of reasons, including things that are outside of the business’s control. They could even base on entirely false reasons. External misunderstanding, internal mistakes, and even the tides of socially accepted matters shifting can all be causes for such PR nightmares. Those dealing with such a problem can look to lessons from larger companies that have faced and handled such issues in the past.
While your business may not have the same resources or budget, the core strategies they used when facing a PR crisis are still important to learn.
The first step is to fix the issue that sparked the problem
When something goes wrong, the first step is to accept accountability and take immediate action to correct the error. A quick, genuine apology is likely warranted, and a plan of action to address the implementation of company changes needs to be instituted. Not only will this be a major step to righting the wrong, but it will show the public that the business accepts its fault and wants to make things right. Let’s take a look at how some major companies have handled these types of situations.
The PR response to Tylenol poisoning
Tylenol is one of the most commonly consumed over-the-counter painkillers, so people rely on it to help them feel better. However, in 1982, seven people in Chicago perished from consuming cyanide-laced Tylenol, due to a copycat who tampered with the brand. Tylenol’s parent company Johnson & Johnson responded quickly by pulling 31 million bottles of its painkiller product from store shelves. They even stopped producing and advertising the particular Tylenol product. On top of that, they offered $100,000 for information about the culprit behind the poison knock-offs, though the culprit went unapprehended.
To mitigate the possibility of copycat tampering, Johnson & Johnson redesigned the packaging of the bottles, equipping them with triple-safe tamper-proof caps, demonstrating the company’s commitment to their consumers’ safety. Aside from that, this action was revolutionary in terms of packaging across the entire industry. They also offered discounts and coupons on their products, publicizing their good faith efforts in the process.
Over time, they were able to regain the public’s trust. This was an example of how the company not only showed they care about their consumers but also had an expert way of interacting with the public.
The Starbucks crisis
In an unfortunate 2008 incident, a Starbucks manager asked two black men who did not order anything to vacate the store. They explained that they were waiting on someone and refused to leave. The manager proceeded to call the police who showed up, arresting the men, and holding them in custody for multiple hours. Ultimately they released them without charging them, but the harm to Starbucks was already done as news of the occurrence spread rapidly.
Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks, responded quickly to the social media outcry noting that he was deeply ashamed about the situation, and the company found it to be a reprehensible act that was taken very personally. He promised that the company would commit to making things right.
These weren’t just empty apologies either. Starbucks, at the cost of millions of dollars to their business, closed all 8,000 locations and provided 175,000 of their employee’s racial bias training. Schultz, to his credit, refused to view this as a loss, but rather as an investment in the company and its people, noting that Starbucks was better than this sort of behavior.
Much like with the Johnson & Johnson case, Starbucks acted quickly and it showed their customers that they were going to do the right thing at a great personal expense to them. They didn’t ignore, stonewall, or brush the issue off. By acting quickly with visible change applications, they proved their consumer dedication and made big strides to save their reputation with the public in the form of a significant PR crisis.
Careful use of humor
Sometimes humor is the best remedy for pulling away from a PR crisis. The humor is not to make light of the cause of the PR crisis, but rather use it to poke fun at the company’s error, which goes a long way in humanizing them. Everyone makes mistakes, and the public understands that. Some light-hearted fun can make a bad situation seem a bit less dramatic.
How KFC handled a PR crisis
In 2018, KFC ran out of chicken in Great Britain, forcing them to temporarily shut down 800 locations. While the issue was not the fault of the company, but a shortage of poultry, customers were only concerned that they were not getting their favorite food. Some even reported KFC to the police for the matter.
As a response, KFC took out full-page ads with their famous log, but in a humorous attempt, rearranged the acronym to resemble a well-known explosive, one that simply lacked a vowel. In this manner, the company demonstrated its shortcomings and the frustrations of its customers humorously, winning praise from consumers and marketers for its tongue-in-cheek efforts.
Even red cross is not immune from mistakes
An accidental Tweet sent out by a Red Cross employee in 2011 pointed to the organization’s drinking exploits. Though it was only up for an hour on social media before being pulled down by administrators, the damage was done as the Tweet was spotted and retweeted, going viral in the process.
Red Cross used humor to joke that the Tweet was sent in a drunken state. The beer company mentioned in the Tweet even contributed its own side of the humor, urging its customers to make donations to the Red Cross in the process.
Of course, in those situations, the humor worked, but in many situation types, it would not go over well. Therefore it needs to be used carefully. The Red Cross example was just a PR slip, not a seriously tragic event, so humor was a fine approach for it. Actually, the fact that a usually serious organization like the Red Cross can be light-hearted may have been the exact reason that this PR strategy worked at all.
Stick to the truth and secure evidence
When a company is the victim of a smear campaign or a negative event that isn’t its fault, it is best to stand with the truth. Such was the case when Pepsi was accused of having 50 Diet Pepsi cans containing syringes in 1993. Pepsi stood its ground about this being a fictitious hoax, and it took offensive measures.
With FDA having their back, Pepsi showed the world evidence that that claims were bogus and never budged from that stance. Their evidence consisted of videos of their canning process, which not only showed that their products were safe, but also that the reported situation couldn’t occur.
The investigation into the matter intensified, as evidence was soon presented of a Colorado woman placing syringes in a can. The company never wavered, so when arrests were made for filing false reports, they were vindicated. They did suffer some small sales detriments but recovered from the losses in about a month.
This strategy is most vitally based on the fact that the truth is in fact on the site of the business owners. If evidence of innocence exists, do not fear holding your reposition, and explaining the truth using all available resources.
Getting ahead of a crisis
Most companies would have loved to b the official supplier of the US skating Team during the Olympic Games in 2014, but that prestige went to Under Armour. They spent millions on marketing and developing special performance suits, even pulling Lockheed Martin into their design.
The Olympic team, however, performed exceptionally poorly, with some turning the blame for the embarrassing loss on their supplier. Under Armour was quick to defend its product, illustrating how the suits were made, the technology that went into them, and how they were tested. They also noted that they were actively working with the US team to address any issues with the product, and even published the testing times for their top-notch technology.
With such bad PR, most brands may have found it best to cut ties with the team, but Under Armour went the other way, renewing their partnership for an additional 8 years instead, proving their dedication. Through their dedication and transparency, Under Armour blossomed instead of faltering, becoming one of the premiere gear and sports apparel companies in the world. That was because they took control of their narrative instead of having it develop around them.
Exercise сompassion during crisis communication
As a general rule, people view major companies as soulless, elitist, giants. So when something goes seriously wrong, the company often either sends a spokesperson out to make a brief statement or just issues a press release. This comes across as a cold, empty gesture. The public views it (at best) as a way to fill an information gap, or worse, try to dodge blame or any level of liability.
When the Virgin Galactic test flight broke apart mid-air in 2014, one pilot was killed and the other injured. Richard Branson, the head of Virgin, quickly went on social media to praise the brave pilots and offer sincere condolences to the families affected by the tragedy. He would proceed to blog multiple times in the next few days about the unfortunate event. As the investigation moved forward, Branson also held a press conference, sharing what was known about the issues so far. Some of the more heartless questions prompted him to respond emotionally and push back.
By illustrating sincere compassion, as well as how the accident affected him personally, along with those who contacted him for his support, Branson was able to be the compassionate face of his company, proving to the world that he suffered and grieved for the terrible loss right along with everyone else, not just being just the head of an emotionally devoid juggernaut.
Showing customers that the company is run by and consists of other humans with sympathies, emotions, and care is very often the best approach to a PR crisis or dealing with dissatisfied clients. Expression of understanding of frustration, anger, or loss is vital. Many times, the real anger comes from customers who feel like they aren’t being heard. Whether it is a crisis as significant as the Virgin Galactic tragedy or something on a lesser scale, people involved need to feel that they are treated like human beings and that the company involved understands and is compassionate to their pain points.
The magnitude and seriousness of each example certainly vary, as does the approach the company takes with it. The one underlying bedrock principle of a good PR response is for it to be honest and expedited. Sidestepping responsibility to try to avoid fault is rarely a good move unless overwhelming evidence shows that you are innocent, in which case it is important to present the evidence while holding your ground.
If your actions satisfy stakeholders who you have a good reputation with, the actions taken in the face of such an event will reach enough people who will appreciate your honesty, transparency, and directness. Many of those are likely to continue to give your brand another chance.