Ask the PRincipal: How Do I Handle a PR Disaster?

There’s no going back…or is there?

Photo via  Unsplash

Photo via Unsplash

Dear PRincipal,

As the owner of a growing start-up, I’ve become hyper-aware of the backlash some brands have received as a result of engaging in unethical behaviour. In your opinion, what do you think is the best way for brands to handle a PR disaster?

Yours Truly,

Fearful Founder

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Dearest Founder,

You’ve come to the right place! Without going into too much detail, I’ve been lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) to sit front-seat and watch some of the greatest PR disasters play out.

Brand response to these disasters have ranged from surprisingly well, to laughably poorly. I strongly believe that the best way to avoid poor disaster management is to learn from past mistakes of others. Let’s look at the three main ways in which the good, the bad, and the ugly of PR disasters have been handled.

Tactic #1 - Take a Vacation

As if they’ve taken an extended vacation, following a PR disaster, company owners will bury their heads in the sand and wait for the tide to pass. While this tactic might work well during the initial onslaught, as time passes, your audience will begin to wonder why you’re hiding, and see your absence as an implication of guilt. A prime example of a vacation-gone-wrong can be found in Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018.  As news broke out of a data breach on the social network, Facebook users anxiously waited for an update from the company on the safety of their personal information. Instead of issuing an immediate response, Mark Zuckerberg took days to release a statement, leaving consumers skeptical and unsatisfied. While you may want to be slow to respond, your company cannot disappear when your audience needs you most.

Tactic #2 - Deny, Deny, Deny

While it might be tempting to deny any negative publicity your company receives, the truth will always surface. Think of the Kendall Jenner Pepsi fiasco of 2017. Rather than acknowledging the valid critiques of the ad made by viewers, the company’s crisis-control statement jumped to the defense. This angered Pepsi’s audience even more, with individuals taking to social media to showcase the tone-deaf parallels the ad drew on the Black Lives Matter movement. As the imagery showcased on social media defied Pepsi’s statement of denial, the company was forced to look inward, and pull the ad from airing.

Tactic #3 - Apologize and React

This is my personal favourite. When business owners screw up, the best that we can do is own up to our mistakes and take steps to rectify the situation. Audiences hold brands to the same standards as they hold their close friends - even if they’re mad, they appreciate a sincere apology over lies or disappearance. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that not all apologies are done tastefully. Remember when Starbucks responded to a racial profiling incident by closing all stores for a “special training day” and even creating their own educational video on the matter? By branding themselves as some kind of anti-racial profiling leader, Starbucks’ apology came off as self-indulgent, rather than facilitating an honest conversation on the incident.

None of these tactics are perfect, so what your company chooses really comes down to your specific incident, audience, and corporate culture. At the end of the day, what’s most important is that your company learns from their mistakes, and has a firm grasp on the connected world that we live in to avoid future PR missteps.

Got a PR question for our PRincipal (and fearless founder) Nesh Pillay? Tweet us @PressPillay!

Read more: Why is Branding Important?