In the age of social media, PR crises have become increasingly common. While your team may have a rough idea of how to respond to a negative situation that threatens the reputation of your company, it requires precise and swift action to minimize fallout.

Being prepared with a data-driven plan can help you save your company’s reputation, extensive amounts of money, and the resources of your communications team.

What is Public Relations Crisis?

A public relations crisis is a situation in which a company’s reputation is threatened by a negative event covered in the press. Topics that often require PR management can range from workplace scandals and product issues to executive malfeasance, and a litany of other possibilities.

Modern-day PR crises, however, can reach far beyond a single negative article in a high-power outlet: they can go viral on social media and stain corporate reputations for months or even years. An executive scandal can quickly result in a brand boycott, turning one person’s actions into an immediate financial loss for a corporation. These issues can also cause long-term harm to a company’s brand and reputation, pressing PR teams to rethink their crisis strategies and ask themselves critical questions about various scenarios. For instance, how does a nonprofit regain trust after an employee accidentally tweets an inappropriate comment on the company’s Twitter handle?

Why Do You Need a Crisis Communication Plan?

Your team needs a crisis communication plan because having an actionable and informed strategy prepared can help protect your company’s reputation from media scandals. Though such crises may seem exclusive to Fortune 500 companies – infamous situations like Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol recall or Chipotle’s year-long battle with E. coli are the PR bogeymen – with social media, a viral tweet or a trending hashtag about your company can draw significant traditional media coverage.

However, having a plan for a theoretical crisis is not enough on its own. Your plan must be airtight and quick to execute, as even a misspelled apology tweet can balloon the size of a PR problem. Yet, with the endless variety of potential PR crises, where do you start planning?

Examples of Crisis Communication

Planning your team’s crisis response by rooting it in peer examples is the strongest way to ensure your path to resolution is efficient and effective. By looking at multiple scenarios and case studies of other companies’ action plans, your team can identify the best strategies for resolving a crisis and maintaining the strength of your brand.  

Addressing Product Issues

Product issues and recalls are the most common forms of PR crises and, if mishandled, they can cost companies millions. In 2016, Samsung’s flagship phone, the Note 7, began catching on fire and exploding. The company quickly voluntarily recalled 2.5 million units of the phone, but it was not until airlines banned the phone that Samsung pulled it completely from the market. At this point, Samsung went a step further – it sent automatic messages to Note 7 owners to return their phones, it remotely locked phones to make them unusable, and it ultimately reclaimed 99% of the phones sold. The concern Samsung displayed for removing a dangerous product from the market, and its subsequent battery safety initiatives, allowed the company to financially recover and continue the Note phone line.

Leadership Crises

In some situations, the words or actions of leadership can compromise a company’s reputation. Communications departments must be involved in crafting executive statements and taking measures to prevent potential repercussions. The following examples outline how the words and actions of leadership can make or break a company brand.

CEO Behavior

In 2020, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman said that neither he nor any CrossFit gym owners were mourning the death of George Floyd. His comments, recorded on a Zoom call, were publicly released. Almost immediately, Glassman stepped down and offered a strongly worded apology that revoked his comments and emphasized his dedication to the company and desire to free CrossFit of his controversy. By stepping down immediately and taking ownership of his actions, Glassman turned the press attention on himself and spared the CrossFit brand of intense scrutiny or criticism.

Spokesperson Scandals

PR crises can also arise from notable company spokespeople, especially if they appear in advertisements and represent the brand. In 2018, “Papa John” Schnatter, the spokesman and CEO of Papa John’s, admitted to using a racial slur during a company conference call. Shortly thereafter, Schnatter resigned as the chairman of Papa John’s. But stepping down was not enough – Schnatter’s image and Papa John’s had become synonymous, and the fast-food chain needed to find meaningful ways to communicate its distance from the former spokesperson and CEO. In response, Papa John’s implemented an anti-bias training, acknowledged the issue on Twitter, and apologized for Schnatter’s actions, yet the brand still struggled to bounce back.

Executive Communication

The actions of your C-Suite can also exacerbate problems. When two Boeing 737 Max aircraft tragically crashed in 2019, CEO Dennis Muilenburg allegedly stressed to President Trump that pilots could easily be trained to counteract any technical problems, absolving Boeing of the need to fix the technical issues. Muilenburg’s choice of language, which implied the technical issues would persist in 737 Max airplanes, stoked further fear and compelled countries to ground the aircraft. Though 737 Max planes have recently been allowed to fly again, traveler anxiety persists over the safety of the planes due to Muilenburg’s choice of language and response to the crisis.

Employees’ Social Media Activity

PR crises can also come from within: current and former employees can make problematic comments about their employers on social media. In one example, Chipotle fired an employee who voiced criticism on Twitter about the company’s low wages. The mismanagement of the employee’s complaint not only spurred increased media attention but also a lawsuit against Chipotle that it eventually lost. Employing real-time monitoring of social media sites like Twitter can help your team catch and respond to damaging comments from employees before they gain traction online, allowing internal resolution that avoids controversy.

Franchisee Controversy

In 2021, a UPS store in small-town Newport, Vermont refused to follow the Governor’s mask mandate intended to curb the spread of COVID-19. Social media outcry was swift: in a town of roughly 4,500 people, news of the UPS store garnered more than 390 social shares and almost 2,500 reactions and comments on Facebook. Nearly half the town was talking about the news. Just one day later, UPS announced it was ending its relationship with the store owner, with coverage jumping to national outlets, including the Associated Press. UPS’s quick response curtailed social media outcry, publicly cemented the company’s concern about the COVID-19 pandemic, and distanced its corporate reputation from further coverage focused solely on the former franchise owner.

Ground Crisis Communications in Data

PR crises are complex, variable situations that threaten to stain company brands if not handled properly. From executive malfeasance to employee social media activity, the spectrum of potential crises is broad. While the best response to such situations is to act immediately with a data-driven plan rooted in industry analysis, it is also possible to nip crises in the bud before they bloom.

PublicRelay recently launched a product designed to help jumpstart crisis management: Predictive Alerts. Using AI, the PublicRelay system can predict, with up to 80% accuracy, how likely an article is to go viral on Twitter. If a given tweet seems likely to go viral, PublicRelay can automatically alert your communications team to the tweet within several hours of its initial posting. This gives PR teams the unique opportunity to implement their communications response to a crisis before it has even happened. Getting ahead of a viral tweet can forestall virality, and potentially eliminate the crisis, saving your team – and company – valuable time and money.

PublicRelay also offers comprehensive competitor media tracking, which can provide your communications team with vital information about how competitors respond to critical events. Following the press of your industry peers can help your team create data-based strategies to quickly resolve crises. The PublicRelay system can even help monitor your response in real-time, giving your team the flexibility to pivot your messaging, if necessary.

At PublicRelay, our human and AI hybrid approach to analyzing traditional and social media can help your team build a plan for managing and identifying a crisis the moment (or even before), it breaks and monitor the impacts of your strategy in real-time. To learn more about using PublicRelay to monitor your brand online, click here.

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