There are those people who can grit through some public relation disasters and those that can’t. Being the face of a company when an employee or even yourself really messes up and your customers are more than happy to give some negative feedback can be tough. I will be the first to tell you that it can make you sick to your stomach. I have had sleepless weeks over a social media disaster, and I haven’t even run some of the largest companies that have had some big failures in customer relations.
Accepting That It Will Happen
No one wants to deal with a crisis, but the sooner you accept that it will happen, the easier it will be to mentally prepare for it. Very few companies have a clean record, but perhaps yours does. It may not always stay that way. The issues could range from a company policy that people hated or an employee being racist on Facebook. I am sure I could come up with more than enough situations to make you very uncomfortable and paranoid. Don’t be. Just accept that some really bad stuff will happen and that it will be handled professionally and correctly.
People want to know that you can handle your business in a way that learns from its mistakes and elevates itself from them. So how do you accept it? You do your best to engage your customers, manage your brand properly, and train anyone that is employed by the company the do’s and don’ts in handling company affairs. You cover the basics of how the employees should represent the brand and continually ensure this is done through example at all levels and on a recurring basis. Then when you have done your very best to make sure everyone is on board with expectations, you understand that humans make errors and there is nothing more you can do to guard against a PR disaster. The worst thing you can do is have zero tolerance for mistakes or go on the defensive with your customers.
I have personally dealt with PR disasters within my companies. It has ranged from an inappropriate email that had negative connotations against a race, all the way to a pissing contest of who was right about an order that was incorrectly made. Some have damaged the company while others did not. It was all about handling them correctly and in the beginning I did not do so. I didn’t understand the consequences and my actions hurt the brand. Later on I learned that staying professional and finding a solution that worked for both parties was the correct way to address an issue. It’s happened enough times that I am well aware that my next disaster could happen at anytime and I can assure you that I am ready to deal with it.
I Have Accepted, Now What?
Handling a situation correctly depends on what type of disaster you have on your hands. To illustrate this properly, I will share a situation that happened during the early stages of building my design company. One of my employees, that we will call “Dan”, was handling an order that had importance to it. The customer had “reach” in our target demographic that could strangle us if we did a poor job. Luckily, the product came out great and she loved it! What she didn’t love was an email that was accidentally sent to her instead of me. Dan had hit reply instead of forwarding it to me. In this email he had made a discriminatory joke that said something like,”She was slow in paying because she is Latino”. If you just shook your head at that, then imagine what I did when I saw it.
My stomach turned and it couldn’t have been further from funny. I immediately reached for the phone and called Dan to reprimand him for the email. That part wasn’t really important to me at the time as it was already too late to unemail it. I had a disaster on my hands and I needed to deal with it correctly, quickly, and sincerely. She had replied only a few minutes later saying that she was going to email it to everyone she knows, print it out and post it everywhere within the company, and ensure she tells everyone not to do business with us. This was very serious and my company could have felt the shockwave of destruction if this wasn’t resolved before she took action on her word.
I spent the day thinking about the reply. I took 12 hours to respond through email. This was far more time than I had wanted but this was extremely important for me to get right. I sent her a full page email apologizing for the tasteless joke, unprofessional behavior, the racist and stereotypical attitude, and I would reprimand the employee immediately to ensure this never happens again. I promised that this is not acceptable within the company and I refused to allow this type of behavior. I was genuine and she could read that in my response. I happen to be a decent writer that express my feelings well in written communications.
Her reply came within hours of pressing send and I waited, hoping that my solidarity would be well received. Thankfully, it was and she fully accepted my apology and the recourse I would take against Dan. I handled it properly and took the ownership. I didn’t make it worse by getting in on the joke or defending the employee. I owned it and asked for forgiveness. Sometimes people just want to know you are human. They want to see that a company can be socially responsible. It’s okay to get a black eye once in a while as long as you learn from it.
Benefiting From a Disaster
Not all disasters are accidental or a negative. There are plenty of intentional disasters to stir up conversation or grab some free press. It sounds like a dangerous game to be played but it happens every single day. You just have to look for the companies and people who purposely introduce controversy to gain public chatter. Like the old saying of “any press is good press”.
Taking advantage of an “I’m sorry” campaign can be a huge boost by using humility. This is where some take advantage of public acceptance after their ”oops”. By that I mean they intentionally created a situation that they would later say sorry for. Whether it’s an ethical conundrum or not can be debated, but marketing specialists will certainly take advantage of goodwill no matter. The benefits are too great to pass it up.
How do you do it? Some purposely make a spelling mistake knowing that their audience will gladly call them out and by doing so, create additional attention. Others go big or go home and create a spectacle. Here, let’s list ideas on how it is done, and for the record, these might just be the most obvious one.
- Spelling mistakes on social media. People love correcting spelling and grammar. Low threat and not normally a useful tactic.
- Play devil’s advocate against a popular opinion. This rails people against you until you publicly announce that you have had a change of heart and see their point. Apologize later for being so thoughtless.
- Leak a sex tape. This is my least favorite but it’s hard to ignore the success of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Sure it’s the most private, but it is a way to get attention.
- Have a risky post or commercial. GoDaddy did it for years and never apologized for it. Now a billion-dollar company, they continue to be the “bad boy”.
- Be bad at something publicly and let it go up on YouTube. The “Star Wars Kid” didn’t benefit and instead felt embarrassed about it, but given a different personality, it could have turned out significantly different if he had owned it. I dislike that example because it was a result of bullying, but nonetheless, it is what it is.
- Misrepresent a current event with incorrect information. One example is the news reading fake names of the passengers of the plane crash that were mocking Asians. Horrible as it might be, that video went viral.
I can probably create 101 ways of doing the wrong thing to get the right pay off, but you probably get the point. I personally wouldn’t intentionally create a disaster to benefit from it, but not everyone has that same control. You can make your own decision as well.
The Payoff of Getting It Right
If you have survived a disaster offline or online, you know that it can be emotionally draining. Turning a negative into a positive takes an effort that most people can’t bring to the table. This is also why not everyone can be a PR expert. You have to carry the right personality and cander for this type of work. People can be nasty and especially online. Keyboard warriors are always looking for fresh blood and your company could be next. If you doubt this just look at YouTube comments.
Getting this aspect of crisis management handled correctly brings a respect from customers and even potential ones. When people connect with your messaging they tend to want to take a closer look and perhaps appreciate what you stand for. Your business can easily gain a new following that you didn’t have previously. Perhaps getting this right just gives you exposure to a customer base that didn’t know you even existed beforehand. There are more than enough ways to benefit from handling a disaster correctly. If you have a story to share that relates to this please leave it below in the comments. I would love to hear about it.
I would love to see more people handle issues in a better way online. There is always some crazy story about how someone lost their minds because of some negative feedback. Whether it’s small or big, you have to go into a situation knowing you are going to do the right thing and show everyone you have what it takes to weather the storm.