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Five Steps to Recover From a PR Disaster

Originally posted on UpCity

It starts suddenly.

You’re in the elevator on the way home when you get a Twitter notification. You’re in a meeting at the office when you get a frantic call from your coworker. In a matter of moments, your organization has found itself in the opening stages of a crisis that threatens to damage your reputation and brand image.

Things start moving quickly. Driven by a seismically shifting media landscape, your crisis reaches the mainstream. Reporters call with questions about the situation. Community members sound off on social media, demanding answers and sharing loaded questions. Protestors may even begin to assemble outside your office.

In these situations, many people feel like they need to “do something.” Go on offense. Take to social media in real-time to set the record straight. But crises are complicated, emotionally-charged situations that are only exacerbated by impulsive decision making. When the chips are down, it’s sober circumspection, calculation, and strategy—not reaction and emotion—that will steer your company back into the clear.

Yet, this is seldom how crisis responses unfold. As the CEO of a leading public relations crisis management firm in Los Angeles, I’ve seen common missteps, often committed unwittingly in the opening act of a crisis, exacerbate situations, and nullify future crisis mitigation efforts. Here are a few ways organizations can avoid these pitfalls in their crisis management plan.

During A PR Crisis, Tell The Truth 

When it comes to reputation management, the coverup is often worse than the crime.

Under no circumstances should your communication strategy involve lying about your situation. That will only lead to another public relations disaster on your hands. Denying something that clearly occurred will eviscerate what trust your organization still enjoys with those you care about. It’s far easier to come back from a mistake than from an orchestrated lie.

It’s equally inadvisable to mislead the public with doublespeak or half-truths. You should never manipulate the situation—particularly a serious accident, crime, or misdeed—for your organization’s own benefit. Don’t use jargon or industry language to cloak the true meaning of your words.

This principle also applies to misinformation released in good faith. If you choose to publicize information you believe at the time to be true, and it is later determined to be false or partially incorrect, the public will perceive it as a lie—no matter what you originally intended. When creating a response plan, know that it’s better to say nothing than to speak prematurely, without a clear set of verifiable facts.

Avoid Echo Chambers 

When a crisis hits, it is essential to take an honest assessment of where you stand. To do this, you need to surround yourself with team members willing to give you the brutal truth, so you can shape your crisis communication plan from there. Your response team should call our bad impulses and pump the breaks on hasty decision-making—not feed impulsive decisions or reactions. You want counselors, not enablers.

Proactively Tell Your Narrative 

Many expert PR professionals will warn you: If you do not tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. You want your organization’s interpretation of events—not that of journalists, stakeholders, Twitter users, influencers, or community members—to be front and center in the public discourse around your crisis.

The most effective way to do this is by being proactive, getting in front of the news cycle, and offering a compelling, truthful narrative. If you and your communications team do not feel ready to go on the record, speak to the media in the background so that your perspective can still inform their reporting.

Proactive engagement gives you the opportunity to provide framing and context around the situation. When done right, it can even elicit public sympathy and support.

Time Repairs Reputations

Time can heal even the most damaging crisis. Eventually, the press will dissipate, reporters will move on, and the public will lose interest. This creates an opportunity to rehabilitate your brand.

Your crisis response and ongoing marketing strategy must take this into account. Your plan for navigating day one of the crisis should look a lot different from your strategy for managing day 100. Learning to match your response strategy to the contours of your crisis ensures you neither miss the mark nor overplay your hand with your communications.

Learn From Your Mistakes 

Crisis situations often illuminate flaws and deficiencies within organizations that existed in the first place—and provide leadership teams with items to fix to limit future avenues for crises. If your crisis resulted from a hack, for example, your organization would know to invest in cybersecurity for the future.

This intelligence is not idle information, though. It must be acted upon to prevent the kind of recurrent crises that can quickly erode your brand’s reputation. Human nature is generally forgiving; the public is often willing to overlook a one-time crisis or lapse of judgment. But when crises become a trend rather than an aberration, you will no longer be afforded the same benefit of the doubt. Whether you’re a publicly-traded company or a startup, your crises will become your identity—and that’s a contingency every prudent executive must seek to avoid.