Once your business or brand is entrenched in a PR crisis, what is done next plays a major role in determining the outcome of that crisis. When you feel attacked, especially if you feel the attack or criticism is unjustified, the temptation is to react emotionally. And, when a mistake has been made, frustration, guilt, anger, and fear can conspire to cloud your judgement. The fact is, we don’t do our best thinking when we’re emotional, and clear thinking is vital in assessing and responding to a PR crisis. A PR client pausing and planning before responding could make or break the initial narrative addressing the crisis. That’s why client response is one of the most underrated metrics in measuring the success of a crisis response.
You might remember the United Airlines PR fiasco from back in 2017. Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from a flight, and a video of the bloodied Dao being dragged off the plane quickly went viral. UA’s CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial response to the resulting firestorm of criticism only fanned the flames. He defended security personnel, saying they followed “established procedure” for ejecting a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger. This message did not play well, and United’s PR crisis went from bad to worse.
Munoz and United eventually rallied. In a very public gesture, Munoz asked United to withhold his bonus, significantly lowering his pay in the wake of the company’s woes. Sure, there were some who complained even about this, but the plain fact is he didn’t have to do it, but he chose to take one for the team anyway. His message in that moment was spot on: “I felt it was important to send a message about the culture of accountability and integrity we are building here…”
Notice the “we are building” message. That’s a tacit, but strong, admission of work needing to be done and of a willingness to undertake the challenge. In measuring the effectiveness of United’s crisis response, this message was vital to its success. The team made a public mistake, the initial message made it worse, and the boss took responsibility. Solid resolution to a fumbled beginning.
So, as a PR professional, what are some factors to consider to ensure effective and positive client responses to a PR crisis?
First, you need to gather accurate information and properly assess the situation before making any statements or responding in any way. And you need to keep in mind that emotionally driven “data,” assumptions, and incomplete data could send you in a bad direction.
You need to have a plan in place that defines how to respond and who will be responsible. Do not just assume the hierarchy. Media will be looking for sources at every level of your organization. Message control is vital, and those policies need to be in place before the crisis to be most effective.
Key leadership must personally engage. In a crisis, people want to know what the decision makers are thinking as well as what they are doing. When handled properly, this is a prime opportunity for connection and seeding goodwill.
The client must manage the speed/effectiveness conundrum. In a crisis, the faster you get on message and get it out there, the better it is, because events can escalate quickly, and you need a strong voice in that conversation. However, if you just jump out there without the right message, that fast response could be counterproductive.
The client will be at the center of media interest and the consumer firestorm. They need to own that unflattering spotlight. Accept responsibility where appropriate, project empathy, understanding, and commitment to making it right. Because, if you don’t give the media and the masses a solid, effective message, they will create their own narrative and run with it.
In the end, how well your client manages each of these factors will either limit or expand the potential for a positive outcome in a PR crisis. When you measure these metrics, you can then show your client how their cooperation and teamwork with you created a satisfactory solution to a bad situation.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO and founder of 5W Public Relations (5WPR)