Crisis communication is the branch of public relations that no business wants to experience. Unfortunately, many businesses will at some point have to deal with this, especially in the age of digital media.
Reputation management is as important as ever, especially with the rise of smart phone usage video evidence of a company’s bad practice is only a few clicks away. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick experienced this firsthand as he was caught on camera berating one of his own drivers. Your response plan has to be as prompt and professional to avoid a small gripe becoming a potential PR disaster.
Think of your PR crisis like an earthquake; the damage can be severe but if you have a response plan in place, you can save not only yourself, but limit the damage to your belongings and look to repair other assets.
It would almost be a crisis in itself if we were to talk about crisis management and not mention the somewhat calamitous behaviour of United Airlines and their recent activity.
If there were ever a brand that was a catalyst for what not to do, it would be these guys.
In the past couple of months, United Airlines has stood centre stage in the media’s eyes for negative press and from this, their reputation has been deeply affected and almost irreparable.
In March, two teenage girls were barred from boarding a flight as the United Airlines gate agent deemed their leggings as inappropriate. This was followed up in April with what might be the most infamous incident, 69-year old passenger, David Dao, was forcibly dragged off an overbooked flight after he refused to give up his seat. What harmed the brand most of all was the shocking scenes captured on a smart phone.
Recently the company was called out again for mistreating customers as an employee accused a father of inappropriately holding his sleeping son near him.
Where these incidents avoidable? Yes.
Arguably the most recent events might not have even made media eyes if previous incidents hadn’t have happened, but because the brand is so fresh in the media spotlight and their reputation is so damaged, even a hair out of line will make headlines.
So, what can you do to help prepare for a PR crisis and protect that cherished brand reputation?
If/when disaster strikes, have your plan in action to deal with the situation promptly and professionally.
The first step is to issue a holding statement, ideally in a letter from the CEO, not an employee or brand representative. In it, usually in no more than 200 – 300 words, apologise for the incident, take responsibility, detail how future incidents like this will be prevented and how company practices will be reviewed and that considerable action will be taken going forward. This statement will ideally be issued to the media within the first hour of the incident taking place and should also be posted to your social channels.
If we reflect on the actions of United Airlines after the David Dao incident, we can see their approach was slightly different. The statement issued by CEO Oscar Munoz only apologised for having to ‘re-accommodate’ customers and slightly missed the mark with shouldering the blame. His statement was then subsequently hit with a backlash of views and comments from Twitter users.
It’s important when handling a PR crisis to always remember your key message response and to not veer away from your original statement.
Keep using the same tone, don’t contradict yourself and remember the heart of your message. You might have to respond to different media calls, press calls, digital forums, dependant on the extent of the crisis, so it’s important to have that consistency.
United Airlines didn’t follow this path. A leaked letter to employees showed a contrast in the CEO’s response and highlighted a complete contradiction on his original statement. The leaked letter blamed the passenger for being ‘disruptive’ and congratulated his staff on the manner in which the situation was handled. Subsequent u-turns followed and no real situational transparency was retained, thus reputation flew out the window.
In this vast media landscape we now live in, social media is a powerful tool in seeing how people react to your actions. Look closely to how they are perceiving what has happened and follow conversation threads.
Crisis communication may also be needed when your brand or service receives a complaint or bad review online.
Remember, there are so many eyes online now that you have to be seen as proactive to these complaints and willing to open up a dialogue to solve these problems. Whether it might be a poor Google review or a negative Facebook comment, brands can save their reputation by looking to resolve these issues. We always believe in communicating with users that feel disappointed from a service/company instead of hiding and hoping nobody will notice.
No business wants to go through a period of being vulnerable to media criticism and online complaints but sometimes this happens. It’s crucial to have some form of crisis communication plan in place to always refer to in times of stress and uncertainty to preserve that all important reputation.
Don’t be left out in the cold, prepare for the unexpected.