The Ultimate Crisis-Communications Checklist: 6 Steps To Master Your Disaster

Whether you’re digging your way out of a negative PR avalanche or simply need to scrub a less-than-squeaky-clean outburst, here are tips from branding experts on how to handle public outrage with grace and style.

So you torpedoed your brand. Or maybe you just want to learn how to handle a media sh*tstorm like the one that ensued when Susan G. Komen For The Cure announced it wouldn’t renew its grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer exams. 

Though Komen For The Cure reversed its decision to pull about half a million in funding for low-income women to receive breast-cancer screening only three days later, it’s going to take a lot of elbow grease to remove the black marks now marring all its pink ribbons. And while the Komen dustup doesn’t tip the ethics scale like BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to the MIT Sloan Management Review, the negative effects of such events have a substantially greater impact on consumer willingness to pay than the positive effects of ethical behavior.

Whether you’re digging your way out of a similar mess or simply need to soap a less-than-squeaky-clean outburst (ahem, Giselle), here are some tips from branding experts on how to handle the public’s outrage with grace and style.

1. Own Up To Your Mistakes

No one knows this better than Mikkel Svane, CEO of Zendesk. The cloud-based helpdesk software company nearly caused a riot among its 10,000 clients in 100 countries last year with the launch of a series of new features and changed cost structure. Svane and his team took a breath before diving in (with its own software solution) and addressing all the complaints. Now that things have cooled off and customers are once again satisfied, Svane says that "building a business, especially at this pace, you are making mistakes all the time. The best thing a company can do is embrace its mistakes."

2. Use Empathy

One of the first things to do after acknowledging the mistake is to show empathy. Let them (your constituents, customers, user base, etc.) know you care about how they feel and that you want to know how they feel, says Rebecca Saeger, executive vice president and CMO at Charles Schwab.

3. Show Vulnerability

Lady Gaga may not be the first person who comes to mind when you need first aid for PR disasters (think meat dress, refusing Al Yankovic the right to spoof, numerous public stumbles in airports on vertiginous heels) but she sure knows how to keep millions of fans hooked

Her secret sauce? Spilling “secrets.” Gaga’s never been shy about revealing her foibles to the growing throng of “Little Monsters,” as she calls her fan base. Sharing her imperfections allows fans to relate to Gaga, and in doing so she also manages to unite them in a tightly knit tribe. If your brand is becoming disconnected from humanity, it’s time to take a lesson from Gaga’s authenticity. 

4. Don’t Use Traditional Media to Quash a Social Media Frenzy

Let BP stand as an example for companies of any size on what NOT to do before, during, or after a disaster. Dogged pursuit of its "Beyond Petroleum" rebranding, the deep-green position was at serious odds with a lousy environmental record that included refinery explosions, the devastating Prudhoe Bay spill, and the Gulf disaster. 

To make things worse, BP’s PR efforts were mostly contained to TV and newspaper ads. The estimated $100 million spend to stem damage to its reputation was pitted against social media such as the Boycott BP page on Facebook that received three quarters of a million "Likes" and essentially allowed negative conversations around their brand to rage unchecked on the web.

When social networks allow people to bypass traditional media outlets and talk among themselves, it’s time to come up with a sound strategy for steering the conversation. That’s what David All, president of the David All Group, did when hired by South Carolina's Congressman Joe Wilson, who stepped into the glare of the media spotlight when he shouted "You lie," to President Obama during his health care address.

"Twitter is not the end-all, be-all, but it proved to be another tool to help us achieve our online goals. We used it to share information with influencers, help shape the debate, listen to the conversation as a real-time focus group to gauge our response, set the tone that we were fighting back with social media, and to essentially get our side of the story out.”

5. Own Your Search Results—Positive and Negative

Ever try to Google “Santorum?” Instead of getting the website of the presidential hopeful, the first result is a fake definition of "santorum." The term for a sexual byproduct was fixed in the firmament of Google search results back in 2003, when Santorum outraged the gay and lesbian community when he appeared to tell a reporter that gay sex was not entitled to privacy protections, and could therefore be banned by the government. And 2007 was the year when "miserable failure" searches began pointing to a biography of George W. Bush.  

While Google maintains control and hasn’t agreed to manually remove such pages, companies could fend off similar attacks by taking charge of SEO and owning search results—good and bad. Toyota grabbed the Google bull by the horns during its $7 billion brand crisis when the company was forced to recall more than 5 million of its faulty vehicles in May 2010. That’s when plaintiffs' attorneys turned to the web in droves to recruit class action litigants and cement the perception that Toyota had acted irresponsibly.

At the height of the recalls, a Google search for the term "Toyota recall" displayed 10 paid advertisements with Toyota at the top spot. It also had dedicated Google adwords campaigns (SEM) for terms such as "Toyota Recall," "Toyota Problems," and "Toyota Issues,” a strategy that allowed the company to buy the negative terms about itself, not just positive or generic ones.

6. Weigh Your Options Before Making a Hasty Decision

Lowe’s Home Improvement and KAYAK.com pulled their ads from The Learning Channel’s All-American Muslim in a knee-jerk response to pressure from the one-man fundamentalist group known as the Florida Family Association. Lisa Mabe, founder and principal of Hewar Social Communications, says it never pays to pull the trigger too quickly, but make such decisions thoughtfully, especially while the storms are raging. “One lesson here is to carefully consider the credibility of the individuals or companies doing the complaining in the first place. Often times we see a lot of noise from groups who aren’t even shoppers at the company in question,” says Mabe.

Did you get all that? If not, here’s a 30 Second MBA video recap of how to address social media storms head on from Mitchell Harper, cofounder of BigCommerce.com.

Now it's your turn. What leadership lessons have you taken from PR debacles? Tweet us @FastCoLeaders with the hashtag #FCweighin to join the conversation, or leave a comment below.

[Image: Flickr user Nimrodcooper]

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2 Comments

  • Kaleb

    Love this one: 4. Don’t Use Traditional Media to Quash a Social Media Frenzy.

    So let's imagine for a moment that it's BP (again) who have messed up. Not only are they highly untrusted, but why, if you were them, would you use a one-way method of communicating how sorry you are about a PR disaster.

    Any brand that neglects social media as part of its comms plan is neglecting the importance of the voice of the vocal (but previously weak) majority. Do this at your peril.

  • Megann Willson

    Tell the truth. Show how you know you were wrong. Say you're sorry. Explain how you'll fix it. Take your medicine. Promise to do better.