In the midst of a retail recession in 1991, Gerald Ratner gave a speech detailing how his jewelry company was thriving despite the financial climate. While giving tips for business success, he described a sherry decanter his company sold, which cost a mere £4.95.
“People say to me, ‘how can you sell this for such a low price? I say, ‘because it’s total crap,'” he stated. Although seemingly an offhand comment—the audience even laughed—the remark nevertheless “wiped an estimated £500 million off the value of the business, and Ratner left the following year.”
Bottom line? The business of public relations is no laughing matter. And in the world of the Internet, the news of public relations disasters can spread faster, leaving companies scrambling to repair errors and restore good faith.
So here’s the million dollar question (or rather, the 500 million pound question): how do you prevent public relations (PR) disasters in the first place? Once we’ve answered that we’ll talk about the other question on your mind: when a PR disaster slips through the cracks, how do you fix it, tout suite?
Preventing PR Disasters
PR has earned a bad rap among laypeople. The average person hears “PR” and thinks the aftermath of a disaster. But PR is not just about apologizing: it’s about preventing embarrassing scenarios from happening in the first place. It’s about making relationships with the public (i.e., “public relations”) positive, transparent, and representative of company values. Here are three tips for making your preventative PR match those descriptors.
- Avoid Confirmation Bias
In February 2015, a Krispy Kreme franchise in Hull, UK, advertised an event called “KKK Wednesday.” Meant to stand for “Krispy Kreme Klub,” the name unsurprisingly prompted less than positive connections with a certain hood-wearing social club. The franchise quickly removed the promotion, and the Krispy Kreme public relations manager, Lafeea Watson, issued an apology.
“We do believe this was a completely unintentional oversight on the part of our longtime franchise partners in the UK,” Watson said.
How could this oversight have been avoided? By enlisting the help of people not subject to confirmation bias. We all experience confirmation bias, the tendency to believe things to be true when we want them to be true. None of us wants our company to send out potential PR disasters, so we would tend to believe that our marketing materials are free of potentially embarrassing elements. To sidestep this problem, ask trusted outsiders to look over your marketing ideas before you send them out. This outsider could be a friend who has no clue about marketing, or it could just be a fellow staff member who is unfamiliar with the project. Free of the confirmation bias, they will be able to see mistakes you and your team might have missed.
- Have a Plan
As perfect as we’d like to believe our businesses are, even the best of us make mistakes. But mistakes don’t have to turn into PR disasters. Anticipate possible mistakes or negative scenarios, and make a plan detailing how to fix them. These plans can be anything from how to respond to a negative review to what to do when an employee accidentally tweets a personal post from the company account. No matter what situations may arise in your company, create a crisis leadership team, and maintain and train on protocols.
Crisis leadership teams should be composed of solid employees, and each member of the team should have a specific responsibility for crisis management. Make sure all your employees understand who does what on the team, so they know who to follow when disaster strikes.
Having protocols for different possible scenarios does two things: first, it forces you to think critically about the way your business is run; second, it leaves your team prepared for anything. Make sure everyone has access to written versions of the protocols, and have your employees train on them regularly.
- Don’t Bite off More Than You Can Chew
We’re told to “think big,” and that’s great advice. But in 2009, KFC thought too big. They had Oprah give their grilled chicken a shout out and offer a coupon for free chicken on her website. They weren’t prepared for the onslaught of customers that flocked to their stores, demanding complimentary chicken. Many restaurants couldn’t meet the demand, and while “KFC later mailed out rainchecks to their disgruntled customers, . . . the fiasco still earned it the number-one spot in Adweek’s list of the most-memorable product launches of the year.”
How could KFC have prevented this? By not being too ambitious. Or, by being super ambitious, doing detailed research on Oprah’s effect on the public, and preparing for the worst (or best, depending on how you look at it). We’re not telling you to not reach for the stars: please do that. We are saying to keep your ambitions within the limits of what your company can do with a quality you can be proud of.
But When You Have to Apologize. . .
Sometimes, despite your team’s best efforts, PR disasters still happen. Follow these three tips to remedy the situation—or at least prevent it from getting worse.
- Actually Apologize
Don’t complain or make excuses. It makes you look irresponsible and doesn’t help repair your company’s reputation.
After the horrific BP oil spill of 2010, then-CEO Tony Hayward told reporters, “I want my life back.” Seeing as the eleven people who lost their lives in the oil spill literally couldn’t get their lives back, Hayward’s comment didn’t go over well. He later apologized for the comment.
Keep this in mind: “While some companies may not want to admit wrongdoing for fear of lawsuits, oftentimes failing to simply say ‘sorry’ can be more damaging to a company’s reputation than potential litigation.”
- Be Transparent
Consumers like it when companies are honest and strive to make a human connection, even if that means not following the mantra “The customer is always right.”
When Taco Bell was accused of using less beef than they claimed, the company actually didn’t apologize. They stood by their claims. In a letter titled “Thank You for Suing Us,” they explained their position in an assertive, informative, and slightly humorous way.
Treating your customers as humans with brains—not just as blind consumers who only hear what they want to hear—will leave a great impression every time.
- Be Fun
When Johnson & Johnson discontinued their Ultra tampon, women were furious and boycotted the feminine hygiene brand. Bidding on eBay for the tampons even reached $99. Johnson & Johnson ultimately reissued the product, and the PR campaign to apologize to the upset customers more than made up for the temporary discontinuance.
If women visited a page dedicated to the apology, they would see a cheesy, personalized video of a handsome man apologizing through song, playing the piano, sitting in trees, and getting a tattoo of the site visitor’s name. Not only did the campaign apologize, but it gave customers a positive experience that almost made up for what they were upset about.
You, too, can prevent PR disasters and nip them in the bud if they ever happen. To prevent PR disasters, avoid confirmation bias, have a plan, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. To stop them from getting any worse, actually apologize, be transparent, and be fun. Who knows? You may just leave customers loving your company even more than they did before.