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  • 02.07.12

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. 

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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.

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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

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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.  

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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.

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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]

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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