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This article originally appeared at American Express OpenForum:When a public relations disaster strikes, companies must act swiftly and precisely to douse the flames. There’s no cure-all for every PR crisis, but past mistakes show that there are some consistencies in what to avoid.
Whether you’re dealing with bungled distribution channels, a spokesperson scandal, or an environmental disaster, the way you respond has a direct impact on the future of the company.
Here are the seven most common mistakes made by companies during a PR crisis. Avoid them at all costs:
If your company screwed up, admit it. When a person is called out on an every-day life mistake that they blatantly made, you expect them to accept responsibility, and it's no different for a company. Of course, if the company is certain that they didn't do anything wrong, denial is the right way to go. But remember, one of the most devastating ways to destroy a reputation is to say that you're innocent one day and plead guilty the next.
Bridgestone distanced itself from its infamous tire debacle in the late-1990s, until an NHTSA investigation forced it to admit guilt, resulting in a massive recall and consumer outrage. The company never fully recovered.
Consumers want results, not excuses. Waiting too long to respond creates additional unwanted uncertainty, and that can scare people--and make them angry. Do something visible (and not patronizing) to show them that the company is actively working to fix what went wrong, or the public will wonder if you're doing anything at all. A lax approach to solving the problem only leads to dissent.
BP's perceived slow response to its giant oil spill disaster in 2010 led to widespread anger and calls for boycotts against the company.
A smug appearance from a pompous executive on CNN during a crisis is the last thing a company needs while mired in a crisis. All it does is help build the perception that the company thinks it's above the mistake. Sincerity goes a long way in earning the customers' trust, especially amid disaster.
During that same disaster, BP CEO Tony Hayward was oft-criticised for his insincere TV appearances. He seemed to confirm those criticisms when he showed up at a glitzy yacht race as the crisis was peaking.
A simple, everyday news release isn't going to do anything. The PR department must use all platforms to connect with the public and give them all the information that they need. It's simply unproductive to pump out a boring release and just hope that everything will get better after that.
Though it was doing a lot internally, Toyota's public response was inadequate during its 2009 recall crisis. Even when they held an actual press conference, the company's response sounded dull, practiced and disingenuous. It wasn't catastrophic though, but it took some brilliance to fix in the coming months.
Even if you don't know the answer yet, say something. Lack of engagement can spell doom during a PR crisis because it feeds the perception that the company doesn't care about those affected. But that doesn't mean lie to the customers. If you honestly don't know what's going on, then say so, and tell the public exactly what you're doing to find out.
Maclaren's 2010 stroller recall became a lot worse when its customers had trouble contacting the company. It barely had any information available online about what to do and who to contact, so it was difficult to even ask a question, much less get an informative response.
A company's CEO is in many cases its identity. He or she is the big talking head that people turn to in times of the greatest successes and failures. Without a visible, accessible CEO during a crisis, people -- both inside and outside the company -- have nowhere to turn to.
After Sony's Playstation Network went down, it was weeks until CEO Howard Stringer said anything about it. By then, the public outcry about the hacking was already significant, and some even called for his dismissal.
It's frustrating for consumers when a company speaks in generalities. When there's a problem, address all the specifics, because that's what people want to know. What exactly is the company doing today, and what's the plan for tomorrow? An overarching statement claiming that you're on the case will just spark more animosity and distrust.
Delta offered up an amorphous response to its crisis this year, which resulted from rumours that Jews weren't allowed on its flights to Saudi Arabia. It didn't answer anything about the supposed policy, and the reputational wound was allowed to fester.
Above all, know that if you react responsibly, your company will recover -- and possibly even with a vengeance
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