Top 3 Tips For Handling A PR Crisis
“If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”
Bernice King—daughter of the late Martin Luther—posted that piping-hot quip to Twitter last year, prompting an internet-wide burst of applause. Her voice joined the collective roar of outrage that came after one very controversial Pepsi advertisement. Arguably, the most memorable PR crisis of the year.
In the ad, TV personality Kendall Jenner abandons a photoshoot to join what appears to be a race-related protest. Jenner hands off a frosty can of Pepsi to a grim-faced police officer. He accepts it with a smile; the crowd cheers. In so doing, Pepsi and Jenner have effectively ended racial injustice.
Commentators debated the presence of racial undertones in the ad, but the overt implication remained: Just one sip of Pepsi can solve whatever complex social problems lay at the root of protests and rallies! The ad was panned by critics, widely regarded as tone-deaf and pulled shortly after airing. Comments like Bernice King’s rang loud in the ears of distraught Pepsi executives, who shouldered the weight of intense public scrutiny and ridicule during the PR crisis that followed.
In today’s hyper-connected world, where every statement and action is written in the ink of the internet, careful reputation management is imperative to the livelihood of your business. The Pepsi ad debacle was just one of the many great PR blunders of 2017, but serves as a stellar case study in the archetypal PR crisis, offering lessons in what to do and what not to do in the wake of brand image catastrophe.
1. Make a strong statement taking immediate, unflinching responsibility
Whether the entire company comes under fire or just one employee/executive, don’t waste time drafting up excuses or justifications. Even if—especially if—you feel there is some kind of cogent defense to the controversial event, don’t bother.
The court of public opinion won’t hear you out. Your swiftest route to the exit of controversy is simply accepting fault, as publicly as possible. Don’t argue, bow your head and take the full weight of responsibility. The public warms to those who ‘fess up’ and accept responsibility for their actions and the actions of those whom they’re responsible for.
If public ire is shown toward a single person within your organization (e.g. Roseanne Barr, Matt Lauer, the Starbucks employee who asked two gentlemen to leave), express contempt over their actions and (given sufficient evidence), stand on the side of their accusers.
2. Take concrete action that goes beyond mere statement
When an employee asked two young men of color to leave the store because they hadn’t purchased anything, Starbucks took stock of the PR disaster that followed. The nature of their interaction or nuances of the situation were irrelevant. Starbucks executives let the public assessment of the incident guide how they responded to it. It was widely perceived as a racially ignorant and offensive act on the part of their employee. So after a public apology, Starbucks closed stores nationwide for one business day to conduct Racial Bias Training. When incriminated in the court of the public opinion for a perceived wrongdoing—zealously rectify, never argue.
Over-rectify, if possible. When confronted with a racist tweet made by sitcom star, Roseanne Barr, ABC was not necessarily obliged to cancel the show on which she starred. They were obliged, at least, to condemn her tasteless words and maybe suspend her employment with the network. ABC’s decision to cancel the entire show in response to Barr’s racist remark was quick, absolutist, and “brutal” —a move many praised them for.
Greet controversy with contrition. Then greet it with cold, hard action. During a PR crisis, nobody wants to hear that you’re going to “look into it.”
3. Carefully control every response made by your team
In times of a PR crisis, take away everyone’s proverbial microphone. Do not let anyone in your camp make unauthorized statements that have not been reviewed and vetted by a dedicated PR team. If you let executives and employees go rogue, release their own statements, or do interviews in the wake of a scandal—even with the best of intentions, you risk them saying something that fans the flames.
Brand image is critical. As they say, reputations take a lifetime to build and only seconds to destroy. While building your business brand is incredibly important, building your personal brand helps establish credibility at a more meaningful, human level. A strong personal brand gives your voice greater volume with the public, affording you more control over a PR crisis if and when one happens.
To learn more about building a durable personal brand as a business professional, contact the personal branding experts at Advantage|ForbesBooks today.
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