Sometimes bad things happen to good companies. A disastrous event (think BP oil spill) or personal scandal (think recent events surrounding Bishop Eddie Long in Atlanta) can taint your brand in the consumer’s eyes and make other brands wary of affiliating themselves with it. So what’s a company or an individual to do when it runs into trouble?
Dawn Angelique Roberts is a cofounder and managing partner of KD Communications Group, a full service communications firm out of Philadelphia. She also sits on the board of the National Black Public Relations Society and teaches a public relations principals and practices course at Lincoln University. Roberts explains the right and the wrong things to do if you or your company ever has to answer for an unfortunate or misguided incident.
Have a plan. Your company has a plan for other things— the first aid kit in HR, emergency evacuation procedures, the defibrillator in the conference room. It is equally important to have a plan for a public relations crisis. “Have a main contact person who has instructions to contact other members of the company who each have a specific action to carry out,” says Roberts. For example, one person could be appointed to deal with any inquiries from the press while another person could be responsible for rounding up the rest of the company and debriefing them on the situation. “It’s very important to speak in one voice; for the company to appear unified,” she says.
Don’t remain silent. Your inclination might be to say nothing and wait for the whole incident to blow over. After all, today’s headline news always becomes tomorrow’s birdcage liner. But, according to Roberts, saying nothing can often make the situation worse. “Legal counsel may encourage you to have no comment, but from a PR standpoint, don’t ignore an incident or scandal. As PR, we are more concerned with protecting the brand and will advise you on what’s best for the brand,” explains Roberts.
You don’t have to confirm or deny anything. There’s a big difference between acknowledging an incident and trying yourself or your company in the court of public opinion. Address the issue by saying something like, “We are aware of the incident/allegations and are looking into it further,” advises Roberts. A neutral response that neither admits guilt nor accepts blame is the best tactic.
Don’t lie. An incident or a scandal will only be made worse by lying about any aspect of it. As ugly as the truth might be, a deception in an attempt at a cover-up that’s found out is even uglier. It’s a risk better not taken.
Find backup. “Seek support from board members, industry experts, and other companies who will speak out publicly about the positive things the company or individual is associated with and has done,” advises Roberts.
Plan for the future. “Have a plan for when the crisis is over,” says Roberts. “Talk about what you/the company is doing now, what positive things you’re working on and have planned for the future. [If applicable,] talk about what you’re going to do to fix the incident or situation after the fact. Don’t concentrate on what just happened.”