Surviving a PR Nightmare

By: Laura Ballance

People make mistakes and so do companies, including liquor and hospitality businesses. Most companies will at some point face a public relations crisis.

The fallout, and ultimate amount of reputation damage, is largely determined by how the organization responds to those mistakes. Over my career I’ve said countless times, “I don’t work for bad companies, but sometimes, bad things happen.”

“Most companies will at some point face a public relations crisis.”

Over the past 30 years I’ve been involved in assisting individuals and companies through hundreds of crises—from workplace deaths and chemical spills to mass evacuations and tragic railway accidents, to food tampering and dangerously extreme weather situations, and countless others. I’ve found that proactive, transparent communications produce the best long-term results for the organization’s brand. It’s also incredibly important that actions and body language match the words. In other words, be authentic. For instance, you can say your priority is your injured worker, but if leadership doesn’t show they are caring for the worker, the rest of the team and the public will see right through the empty press statement.

In this day and age news goes viral almost instantly. Organizations need to be ready to respond to a PR crisis quickly and efficiently, using all available platforms. Ultimately the best results happen when you prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Liquor and hospitality businesses know their own vulnerabilities, so thinking through how to deal with a situation with plans and protocols that mitigate these vulnerabilities will set you up with a path forward during crises. I develop communications plans for my clients based on likely scenarios because I know it’s much easier to tweak a plan to fit the exact circumstances than to start from scratch.

“It’s important to ditch the excuses and own up to it.”

Here is a quick checklist of things to do when faced with a crisis:

Own It

If you’re facing a crisis, it’s important to ditch the excuses and own up to it. Trying to cover it up will only make the situation worse. Get your press release finalized and up on your platforms to take ownership, and control, of the messaging.

Be Proactive and Accountable

Today’s real-time world of social media means that armchair quarterbacks and critics are everywhere, and technology gives them a large megaphone to hold companies in crisis very publicly accountable for their actions. Without a clear plan, an organization’s reputation can be lost in an instant. Develop your plan during the good times and be ready to action it in the bad. Boiled down, a company in crisis should acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologize with a thoughtful, authentic public statement. As hard as it might be to see while you’re in the midst of a crisis, news cycles are short, and your situation won’t stay relevant forever.

Get Ahead of It

Over the summer in British Columbia, we’ve watched the PR nightmare being experienced by BC Ferries. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse for the Crown Corporation, staff shortages and mechanical issues were eclipsed by a lack of accountability, or proactive and real-time information being shared with the public. In this case, getting ahead of the situation was a much-needed PR strategy that was missed. Organizations can’t expect media to show up for every ribbon cutting and then refuse to comment or make key spokespeople available in times of crisis.

“Never ignore the possibility that a firestorm could ignite on social media.”

Never ignore the possibility that a firestorm could ignite on social media. Smaller organizations can be more guilty of this, and especially those that are not active on social media. Just because a company is not marketing on social does not mean their customers won’t put them in check on those platforms when something goes wrong.

After the Storm

Once the crisis is over, conduct a post-action review and develop a plan to focus on re-establishing credibility. Shift the conversation to positive news from your brand and rebuild your reputation.

Quick Checklist of Do’s and Don’ts

Do instruct a team member to monitor social media to understand who is saying what during an evolving situation.

Don’t ever reply with “no comment.” If you’re still assessing a situation, say that. If you’re not engaging in the online conversation even with initial information, people will assume guilt and make assumptions.

Do recognize when operational improvements are necessary and be proactive about adopting them.

Do keep calm and call your PR team. If your company isn’t large enough to have one in-house, find a contract communications firm to be able to call if needed. Many will only charge you if their services are required. You don’t ever want to find yourself in a situation of googling PR agencies in your community in the middle of a crisis.

Do appoint a response team and get those people identified before a crisis. These are people who have the authority to sign off on social media posts, written statements, and operational actions.

Do identify the affected parties and stakeholders. When a crisis hits, the public isn’t the only group you should be thinking about. Clients, staff, government, and regulatory bodies all might need to be considered. Have off-hours contact information at the ready for key agencies or stakeholders you might need to contact.

Don’t react. Although it is critical to respond, reacting in a crisis is one of the most crucial errors organizations can make. Have a holding statement prepared that acknowledges you are working on answers. This will help you find the time to understand and more appropriately respond in a crisis.

Do have a holding statement (as previously mentioned).  A holding statement is a pre-prepared, fill-in-the-blank template that allows you to issue a statement quickly while you or your team are still gathering additional information on a situation. An example of a holding statement would be:

At approximately (time) a (incident) occurred in our (location). An investigation is currently underway to determine (injuries, damage, etc.). Our immediate focus is on the safety of our (staff, contractors, neighbours). We are currently working with (regulators, stakeholders, police, fire, emergency agencies) and will be providing additional updates as soon as they are available.

Not every situation can be prevented, but having an effective plan can minimize brand damage and prevent additional stress during troubled times.

Laura Ballance has more than 25 years of crisis communications experience across Canada. She has provided strategic direction, crisis communications response, and spokesperson work for companies ranging from small local businesses to Fortune 500 organizations.