PR professionals spend a lot of their time managing crisis situations. While many of these can be beyond the direct control of the client in question – a product failure/recall, an accident, or even workplace violence, for example – the ones that are most painful and frustrating for us to handle are the self-inflicted wounds to a company’s or individual’s reputation brought about by failures of communication or judgment. Sadly, these happen all too often, and generally they occur as a result of a slip of the tongue, moving too quickly, being too sure of yourself, or failing to fully consider the possible reactions to something you say or do.
Sadly, no one is immune from this type of gaffe. Top brands like L’Oréal, Wells Fargo and even The Girl Scouts of America have suffered recent public backlash as a direct result of an offhand comment or a seemingly innocuous tweet.
Nobody likes an unforced error, so what can you do to avoid them? Here are some tips:
End the echo chamber – Lose the yes men and surround yourself with team members who will question your judgment and challenge your assumptions. While one team member may see a great idea, others may see the cracks in that foundation.
Check, double check, triple check – No one should ever make a unilateral decision on public communications. Even the briefest and seemingly most harmless messages should be vetted and reviewed by multiple people.
Be prepared - If you choose to address a potentially polarizing issue, own it and be prepared to deal with the consequences. If you suggest support for a cause or issue and then equivocate, you risk alienating people on both sides of the issue. So, while it’s best to try to avoid these types of comments, if you choose to make one, stick with it.
Consider diverse perspectives – Different groups and types of people can view and receive things very differently. What sounds fine to one audience could be offensive or off-putting to another. Think through multiple points of view, or, better still, build diverse PR teams who can offer you the insight and personal experience you may lack.
Be honest and realistic – Smart PR people know where all their company’s bones are buried and avoid looking at their communications through rose-colored glasses. They know how their past actions may impact how communications may be perceived by stakeholders and the general public.
Walk the talk – Authenticity matters. So does proof. Don’t make any statements that run counter to what others know or your brand and its track record, or you must be ready for people to poke holes wherever they can.
Avoid knee-jerk reactions – While it’s best to plan the work and work the plan, sticking to approved key messages, time is often a rare commodity in the PR world. Things move very quickly, but it’s imperative, even in the heat of the moment, to take a quick step back from the immediacy of what you’re being asked to do to clear your head and think. Read or speak your proposed statement out loud. Then, think one last time. An ounce of prevention is worth a TON of cure in these situations.
As your mother always told you, no one is perfect, but where large-scale public communications are concerned, there’s no room for mistakes. A little caution, a second opinion, and a formal review process will go a long way toward improving your success and allowing you to focus on building good proactive PR rather than cleaning up a needless mess.