How you respond makes all the difference.
Video posted online shows a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from his seat and dragged up the aisle by security after refusing an involuntary bump from his flight. CEO Oscar Munoz apologizes for the need to “re-accommodate” passengers.
Pepsi posts a marketing video featuring supermodel Kendall Jenner striding to the front of a protest march and defusing tension by offering a can of pop to an officer on the police line. The company pulls the ad after a social media firestorm and apologizes “for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
After Fox News declares it won't tolerate behavior that disrespects women, The New York Times reports that the network has paid out $13 million to quiet harassment claims against its biggest star, Bill O'Reilly.
Just halfway through 2017, this is shaping up as the Year of the PR Nightmare.
As major advertisers flee Fox's “The O'Reilly Factor,” Angie's List stays put—at least initially. Before reversing itself, the consumer-fed website whose users review 60,000 businesses every month says it makes no judgments about the places that get its ad dollars.
A candidate for Congress throws a reporter to the ground the night before a special election in Montana. After a baseball game in New York, the team mascot for the Mets makes an obscene gesture to fans.
And we won't even get into Donald Trump's tweets or Kathy Griffin's jokes.
“2017 has highlighted a tsunami of PR blunders,” says Hinda Mitchell, president of Inspire PR Group in Westerville. “Many of these things may have happened before, but we're watching the world through a new lens—social media—that brings these mistakes into real time much more swiftly.”
So if you're a business owner or executive, it's best to keep your schadenfreude in check and your tsk-tsks to yourself. Because when it comes to public relations nightmares, communications experts say, there but for the grace of an inquisitive reporter, a peeved customer or anyone with a cell-phone camera and a Twitter account, goes you.
It's best to be prepared. For anything.
“It's the last thing most small companies think about,” business and marketing consultant Myron Leff says of the advice offered by most everyone in his profession: to think through potential crises that might hit your business and create a plan ahead of time for how to deal with each one of them.
He answers his own suggestion by repeating the skeptical response he has heard often. “I'm already working 20 hours a day. Why are you saying we need to sit down and spend hours on something that probably isn't going to happen?”
And Leff, who owns Leff & Associates in Westerville, answers himself the way he always answers clients: “Why do you buy insurance?”
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Businesses don't need PR consultants to create crisis response plans, although there are certainly a lot more specializing in the field these days.
Twenty-one of 34 central Ohio public relations agencies found on a simple Google search list crisis communications as one of the services they offer. Ohio State University's School of Communication offers a course in crisis communications in which students “examine theories and concepts that lay at the intersections of communication, business, social psychology and interpersonal relationships.” Among class topics: managing corporate reputations, handling rumors, image repair, dealing with an angry public and “handling (a) crisis after your organization has done wrong.”
But small companies without a PR office or the budget to hire outside help can do their own planning. And public relations firms as well as trade groups such as the Ohio Contractors Association offer crisis communications seminars to assist.
The first thing to do is think of all the controversies and crises that could be visited upon your business. “I'm the doom-and-gloom girl,” Mitchell says with a laugh. “I'm the one that always tries to think of all the bad things.”
If you're a construction company, you know you might someday have to deal with an injury or death at a job site. If you're a food manufacturer, you might someday have to recall a contaminated product. Sadly, violence in a workplace or public space is no longer unimaginable.
“I would table-talk, drill out a lot of exercises,” Mitchell says. “You sit around a table, and you have a crisis scenario. You have the leadership of all your different areas at the table, and you say, ‘OK, this is what happened. Now what do you do?'”
Now What Do You Do?
Of course your goal is to keep bad things from happening in the first place. But bad things happen. And bad news travels fast.
“If you're in business, it's almost inevitable,” says Sandra Harbrecht, president and CEO of Paul Werth Associates, a Columbus PR firm. “It may not be of your making, it may be an act of God, but you still have to manage it. The companies who do plan are so much better off.”
What happens if there's a fire? An equipment malfunction? A boycott?
“You can probably anticipate about 80 percent of the crises that are going to happen to you, and you can also anticipate how you're going to respond,” says Mitchell, whose crisis communication specialty is helping food-related businesses. “There aren't that many different things that happen. A meteor could fall on your restaurant. That would be bad. It's probably not likely. I wouldn't recommend you crisis-plan for a meteor. I would absolutely recommend you plan for the possibility of a death in a restaurant.”
Companies also should encourage employees to share concerns about potential crises or even embarrassments to the business, Harbrecht says. Problems sometimes aren't as apparent initially to executives, she says, as they are to frontline employees such as store managers, customer-service representatives or social media managers.
“They might be reluctant because they think they might get in trouble,” Harbrecht says. “But people should know: If you see something, say something. Don't let it sit and smolder.”
Leff was part of a team that worked with Wendy's International back in the mid-1980s when the restaurant chain put together crisis plans for its franchisees.
“They put a list of what might happen together, and they put it into a recipe box. The notes were on recipe-like cards in the box. They were in each store, next to the ketchup, on a shelf,” he says. “If you had a fire, this is what you had to do, who you had to call. So basically you made it easier for people who were worried about cooking food and getting burgers out. … I thought it was a wonderful idea. Because what happens if you're a 22-year-old assistant manager and somebody falls and trips and hits their head, or there's some suspicious stuff going on in the parking lot?”
The planning exercise is the same for small companies as it is for big corporations, Leff says. They just differ in the number of people involved. But when discussing who calls whom and in what order, he adds, you'd best keep board members and other high-ranking folks near the top of the list. You don't want a chairman of the board hearing about a crisis involving your business from tweets or media reports.
Here Come the Media
Assume you'll get a call from a reporter. They always find out the bad stuff.
Part of a crisis communication plan should include who does the talking. For the smallest of businesses, it likely will be the owner who talks to the media. It might be your PR or marketing person, but he or she doesn't always have to be your spokesperson. Experts say your company's own internal experts—the people who best know the situation that's at the heart of your crisis—often are the best ones to explain it to the public.
If the crisis is security-related, the person who best knows your security protocols might be most equipped to talk. Your worker-safety supervisor might handle communications about jobsite injuries. The people who oversee environmental programs or food safety are the ones to talk about those respective areas.
But the media aren't the only ones—or even first ones—you should talk to.
Marcy Fleisher, founder of Team Fleisher Communications in Columbus, worked with Methodist ElderCare Services in 2013 when the operator of assisted living facilities in central Ohio dealt with a legionella outbreak at a facility in Reynoldsburg. Six people died and 39 became ill in what at the time was the worst legionella outbreak in Ohio history.
They weren't communicating just with reporters, she said. It was critical to keep residents, their families and staff directly informed, too.
“We put in place a plan every day,” Fleisher said. “There was a communication that was sent to each of those target audiences, and they were unique. We sent them out every morning at 10:30, first to residents and staff. Our concern was someone who worked there might leave at the end of the day and pass on information that might be inaccurate.”
“The only way to survive this kind of a crisis was to communicate openly and honestly. … People were sick so it was really the ultimate crisis. It was as bad as it gets. But it was very effective. As soon as you start telling people what they want to know, the level of crisis eased a little.”
Curt Steiner, CEO of Steiner Public Relations in Columbus, was the senior vice president for public affairs at Ohio State University in 2006 when an 18-year-old student was killed by a malfunctioning elevator in Stradley Hall.
“What we did in that case was … meet with the students who lived in that same dorm where the tragedy occurred,” Steiner says. “After that, Ohio State police reported factually what they understood about what happened and then other authorities at Ohio State explained it. We then conducted a very systematic but open communication with the public to answer questions from the media about our elevators, about what we understood had happened.
“We felt that if we put the information out as quickly as we could but as factually as we could that the public would conclude, which they did in a short period of time, that this was a tragic accident. ... Once the public understood that Ohio State was doing everything that it could to respond and to ensure public safety on elevators, interest in this situation went down and people respected the privacy of the family that was directly affected by the tragedy.”
Steiner says you shouldn't be afraid to tell customers, employees, partners, even the press, that you don't know certain details yet. “Before you can share the truth, you have to have enough time to know what the truth is.”
Fleisher scheduled regular press briefings at 3:30 p.m. at her Downtown office to share information and answer questions during the legionella outbreak. The use of that location also got TV stations' equipment trucks away from the nursing home, where their presence made residents and staff nervous.
“If you don't know something, tell people, ‘We don't know. Here are the steps that we're taking to figure this out,'” Fleisher says. “We didn't know where the outbreak was. We didn't want to pretend that we did.”
Leff says it's wise to make sure any designated spokespeople receive some media training, another common service of PR firms and a common topic of business seminars. Tips from Fleisher include reinforcing your main point in not-so-subtle ways: “What I'm trying to convey is…,” “If you take away one thing…,” “I wanted to reiterate…”
“A reporter's goal is not a ‘gotcha,'” she says. “I know everyone thinks of the media these days as being adversarial. But in the case of a crisis, especially, they should be your friends.”
No Comment? No!
But if “I don't know” is OK, a no-comment is a no-no.
To the public, “no comment” doesn't mean you might say something later but not right now. It doesn't even mean you don't want to talk about the situation at all.
“It leaves way too much to interpretation,” Leff says. It means to people that the crisis is worse than it seems. It means your company has no idea what's going on. It means you're hiding something. “There's nothing good out of no comment,” he adds.
Fleisher, a former reporter for WBNS-TV, says lying is an even worse idea.
“We don't look for some sort of sneaky way to avoid (the truth),” she says. “One of the first things we say when we engage with someone is either we're going to handle this openly and honestly or this is probably not the right engagement for us to help you with. I won't lie to a reporter. I won't. I'm not suggesting that other people do, but having been on the other side, I can't. I won't.”
Steiner, whose background is in politics—he was spokesman and later chief of staff for Ohio Gov. George Voinovich in the 1990s—says it's best to get the facts out as soon as possible during a crisis.
“People are afraid, rightfully so. People are afraid of negative publicity, and so a natural reaction is to not talk about something, when in fact that could be exactly the wrong approach.”
The Dreaded Hashtag
There's one time people aren't afraid to talk about something, though: when they have their hands on a smart phone or keyboard. You might not want to talk about your company's crisis, but the rest of the world is more than willing to share its thoughts, grievances and speculation online.
“In this day and age with this ongoing news cycle that never comes to an end, with the ever-present digital universe, transparency is really not not an option,” Mitchell says. “The need of companies to respond swiftly and to demonstrate that they've responded swiftly is more important than ever. You now have this situation where if the company isn't first out, then anything that comes before the company becomes the story.”
Getting out there first means getting out there even if you don't know everything, she says. Mitchell advises clients at least to post a statement on their website and social-media accounts like: “We're aware there's a situation. We're looking into it. Please check back here for our frequent updates.”
The object is to get customers and the public looking at you, not at others' posts and tweets. But like others, she says you must be honest. “If they sniff for just a second that you might be trying to be sneaky or withhold information, they'll look elsewhere.
“You just can't underestimate the fact there are so many more places to get information,” Mitchell says.
But that also can be a good thing. The same online attention that came your way can disappear quickly, honed in on the next controversial marketing campaign or celebrity arrest or presidential tweet. Your crisis can become yesterday's news before tomorrow even arrives.
Or it might not have been a crisis to begin with. Don't overreact, PR experts say.
“Sometimes no response is the best response as relates to social media because it's not affecting your business; it's a rant by a dissatisfied customer,” Leff says. “You have to use judgment. Is this something that's really going to affect the company, or is somebody mad because you didn't have rain checks?”
So What Have We Learned?
When everything gets back to normal, there's still one more thing to do, Harbrecht says.
Sit back down with everyone and talk about what just happened. Just as you can't create a crisis communications plan and stick it on a shelf unreviewed until the day you need it, you can't close the folder as soon as the crisis ends.
“Pause to say, ‘What just happened?' It doesn't take that much time,” Harbrecht says. “People need to sit back down and say, ‘What have we learned from this?' Then you can say, ‘Whew, let's get back to business.'”
Bob Vitale is associate editor.