Tactical Response Strategy for a Public Relations Disaster

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Remember how much fun it was to hear Greg Smith share his experience at Goldman Sachs on his way out? It wasn’t fun for the company.

Major mistakes, SEC filings, surprise arrests, wardrobe mishaps, foot-in-mouth syndrome…all make for wonderful viewing, but what if you’re the company in the unfortunate spotlight? May it never happen to you! If it does though, even on much smaller scale, it’s time for immediate emergency action. MarketingProfs shares a brief outline of what to do in this online article.

What you’d most like to do is disappear, opening your eyes to find that the awkward facts and embarrassing questions have miraculously transmogrified into a tropical island complete with flowers, coconuts and fruity drinks. It’s not going to happen, so stand up, take a deep breath and smile bravely. This too shall pass, but it probably won’t do so as quickly as you might wish. You can minimize the long term damage by remaining calm and taking these steps:

Fix what’s fixable. Some things are fixable and some aren’t, but either way you need a plan to stop doing whatever it is. Make a detailed plan and share it openly. Devote whatever company resources are necessary to get this done well and quickly.

Mea culpa. Claim the error and all its ugly details. (In this step and the following one avoid using the ‘past perfect exonerative’ when you’re owning up to it, as in, “Mistakes were made.” Active missteps call for the active voice.) The more of the story that you share, as opposed to letting the media dig out on their own, the more credibility you maintain.

Apologize like you mean it. That means sincerely and repeatedly. You don’t just wish it hadn’t happened, you wish you hadn’t done it. As any teenager knows, apologizing helps set the scene for forgiveness but it doesn’t prevent getting a lot of negative feedback about the incident. Be understanding, be calm and try to get through this phase with as much poise as possible. Remember, you did it and you are sorry. It’s okay that people need to share their anger and disappointment.

Prevent a repeat episode. You must create and execute a clear plan to make absolutely sure this was a one-time situation. Establish checkpoints and safety nets or whatever is necessary to be positive that you’ll never be right here again. Let customers and the public in on your solution to encourage confidence in your brand.

Hold your head high. If you’ve handled the other steps thoroughly, the end will come and you can get back to business. If it comes up again, go through the earlier steps until everyone gets to a point of acceptance, even if closure isn’t immediate.

Inform your staff and establish a spokesperson. Okay, this one isn’t in the article, but Bonnie felt it was important enough to add. Keep your staff fully apprised about the situation, and make sure they know what happened, what you are doing to keep it from happening again, and what your official response is to the press. At the same time, appoint one person, and no more than three, to be your official liaison with the media. Make sure everyone is singing from the same songbook and have a professional train them to be in front of the media, if needed.

The good news is that your company can emerge from almost any disaster intact. In fact, the more integrity and capability you show in dealing with the disaster, the stronger you will find yourself after it’s history. Everyone makes mistakes, and most people have an amazing capacity for forgiveness. What matters is how you handle yourself during the aftermath and how effectively you commit to a resolution. Who knows – it’s even possible that you’ll laugh about it one day.

Can you share any PR disaster stories that your company survived? We’d love to learn how you handled the moment.

And P.S., if you scroll all the way to the bottom of the Chicago Tribune article we link to at the beginning, you’ll notice something that proves our point on how important proofreading is too. Catch it?

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Sarah Warlick is responsible for making us and all of our clients sound professional and eloquent as the content director at bbr marketing. In this role, Sarah is in charge of ensuring that all copy is well-written, accurate and free of pesky typos before it heads out the door. Additionally, she is a prolific writer and a frequent contributor to bbr marketing’s blog sites. She spends a good deal of time writing copy for our clients and has a unique way of crawling into our clients’ heads to create ghostwritten copy that sounds as if it came directly from their pen.
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