Many businesses will face a crisis at some point, but it’s how they deal with it that people remember most. Crisis management is an essential component of any medium to large business. But in the face of a crisis, there are many common pitfalls that put businesses at risk of further damage. We’ve outlined the most common mistakes that businesses make dealing with a crisis.
What is a business PR crisis?
A business crisis is an unexpected event, circumstance, or public news story that can threaten the credibility, reputation, and sometimes the survival of a company. Some memorable business PR crises include: Pepsi’s insensitive ad featuring Kendall Jenner quelling a political protest with a can of the fizzy drink; United Airlines preventing two girls from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings; and the ‘Tide Pod Challenge’, where teens were eating the laundry detergent for social media videos.
Each of these case studies is a reminder that a crisis can come from numerous different avenues — it can stem from top-level management and regional employees; it can arise somewhere completely external, like a journalism exposé, viral social media post, or the news agenda — it can be external, internal, or both.
No one can fully anticipate when and where a crisis will come from, and sometimes it is completely out of the company’s hands. But timing and effective management are crucial when dealing with a crisis to ensure that no more damage is done.
What are the different types of crisis?
Business crises can fall into eight different categories: natural disaster, technological crisis, confrontation, malevolence, organizational misdeeds, workplace violence, and rumors. Some of these things, like a natural disaster, are unavoidable. Other crises come about due to human influence, but of course, no one ever anticipates a crisis until it is brewing or has already been leaked to the public. But no matter the type of crisis, once it has already happened, it is the public relations handling of the situation that becomes critical. So what are the common mistakes that businesses make when dealing with crises?
We’ve all seen it with politicians — the say-nothing-and-hope-everything-blows-over method. Silence is never louder as it is during a crisis. Publicly ignoring a company crisis or refusing to comment to the press is one way that is guaranteed to exacerbate the situation. More than anything, it allows the public to make further assumptions about the company — whether that be that they think the crisis isn’t significant enough, they don’t care, or that the public doesn’t deserve an explanation. Moreover, when dealing with a crisis that affects the public, like a data breach, failing to provide a company update about the handling of the situation is keeping those directly affected in the dark. In other words, it’s one way to ensure that your customers will never return.
Acting too fast or too slow
When a crisis unfolds, a common business mistake is acting too fast to set the record straight at the first chance they get. But it’s important to hold off initially, gather the facts, and craft a statement that is true and accurate to the current situation. At the same time, in the age of social media, there is no excuse for a slow response. Companies have the ability to broadcast a carefully reviewed statement to hundreds of millions of people across the world through their social channels. The danger in moving slowly is that the story will continue to evolve and develop without the company taking control of its narrative or influencing the angle. Apologizing and acknowledging fault can mitigate damage in the long term, rather than holding back a statement until there is an excuse or explanation.
Lying or hiding the problem
It seems obvious, being the thing that we’re taught not to do since childhood. But lying when dealing with a business crisis can be fatal. Not only is the truth very likely to come out via another avenue, but being caught in a lie is far worse than acknowledging fault for the current situation. Similarly, pretending to customers, stakeholders, and other affected parties that there is no crisis, is also very likely to backfire. In the long run, it could result in floods of negative reviews or even lawsuits.
Becoming aggressive or defensive
When dealing with a business crisis, many different parties will be affected by the fallout. This includes the lower-level employees and external parties. The whole company will be affected by a crisis and employees will be looking for a level-headed leader who can guide everyone through the challenging weeks or months. Being aggressive or defensive, either in front of employees or the public eye, will hurt the reputation and credibility of management, who may also be the public face of the company.
Avoiding social media
Not only will the public be closely watching company social media channels waiting for a statement or update, but a company crisis can actually spiral on social media. We know just how quickly theories, fake news or stories can spread on social platforms. While a company handles a crisis in real-time, on the internet it can unfold at twice the speed. Crisis management should keep a close eye on the social media conversation so that a response or statement can appropriately acknowledge the various issues being raised.
A company crisis can be so fatal that most big corporations will recruit a crisis management team. These companies are responsible for looking out for warning signs for a potential crisis, training management and employees on how to manage one, building a contingency plan, and advising the company through a crisis in real-time. This highlights the importance of planning for a crisis before it occurs. Without the proper training and no protocol in place, a crisis can quickly become a logistical nightmare that could lead to a muddled public message, neglect of important affected parties, and distressed employees. Additionally, once a crisis becomes known within a company, that is when the management must act — not once it becomes public.
The panic of a crisis can prompt people to act irrationally or make poor decisions. But protocols are in place because they are proven to mitigate damage and help business owners make clear-headed decisions. By straying from protocol or acting independently, not consulting stakeholders and other important key players, the damage is likely to be far worse. While watching a crisis unfold is distressing for top-level management, choosing a new plan of action or acting independently is likely to backfire.
Poorly chosen language
A common mistake in dealing with a crisis is poorly chosen language, and this applies to both the tone and vocabulary. In public statements, sanitizing the situation by focusing solely on the facts and ignoring the emotions of the people involved, will come off as insincere. In the same way, choosing language that is too technical or inaccessible to a general audience will mean that the statement is poorly received, and still does not address the main issues.
Not crafting a PR strategy
Crisis management is a key component of PR, but the strategy after the crisis must be well considered also. Immediately following a crisis is a sensitive time for the company in regards to public perception. Future communication and campaigns must be thoroughly reviewed and carefully considered in the context of what caused the crisis. Returning to business as usual will suggest that previous statements or public messaging were insincere. Take the periods following the crisis one day at a time and give extra time and attention to strategy in the months after.
Crises aren’t always avoidable, but the mistakes that happen in the aftermath are. Knowing the common pitfalls is the first step to ensuring your company never makes the same errors.
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