Contributed to EO by Eden Gillott, an EO Los Angeles member who is president of Gillott Communications, a strategic communications and crisis PR firm. She’s the author of A Business Owner’s Guide to Crisis PR: Protecting You & Your Business’ Reputation, and serves the EO Los Angeles chapter as MarComm co-chair. We asked Eden how to tackle a PR crisis that’s thrust upon your company by external forces. Here’s what she shared:
It’s a quiet Tuesday morning. You’ve finished your morning routine of exercise, gratitude journaling, and reviewing your day’s goal to set yourself up for success. You’re sipping your coffee, quickly skimming through your emails before your daily huddle, when suddenly, an alarming email comes in.
“I know what you did…”
Instantaneously, your heart rate spikes. (And not because you just realized that slasher movie I Know What You Did Last Summer came out 26 years ago.) It’s the beginning of an unexpected PR crisis staring right at you, and your business is about to get thrown in the spotlight for things you didn’t do.
How do you face it? How do you turn it into a narrative of strength? Try these six steps:
1. Deep Breaths and Calm Demeanor
Your first instinct might scream panic. We’ve all been there — and no one is about to threaten your business baby. Yet, pausing and taking deep breaths can clear your head, enabling a structured and effective response. Remember, your reactions influence your team and they’re watching, so if you’re chill, they’ll (more likely) be chill, too.
One morning, a luxury jeweler woke up to an onslaught of bogus negative reviews organized by someone out to extort the owner. The owner was frazzled and pacing the floor, panicked and mumbling. As soon as we arrived on-site, we took them aside, assured them the issue was being handled, and reminded them that what their employees needed most right now was to feel reassured.
Question to ponder: How would you want your team to perceive your reactions in tense situations?
2. Mobilize Your PR Task Force
Every crisis demands swift action. Mobilize your best communicators, seasoned strategists, and your legal team. With everyone aligned, a united front is your first step to controlling the narrative. Multiple perspectives ensure a comprehensive analysis.
An emerging eco-resort faced false accusations of greenwashing. Their manager was in a frenzy, drafting a confrontational press release. We intervened, encouraging them to pause and assemble a core team. Together with their attorney and marketing department, we addressed the issue diplomatically, and the false accusations washed away.
Reflect: Who are your go-to crisis management experts?
3. Embark on a Fact-Finding Mission
In today’s fast-paced digital era, rumors spread like wildfire. Your priority? Differentiate fact from fiction. Avoid assumptions; rely on verified information. This step, while time-consuming, prevents regrettable, hasty decisions.
An education company was suddenly besieged with accusations of selling user data. The founder, inundated with calls, was ready to fire the company that managed their website. We counseled them to verify the authenticity of these claims before cutting the cord. Turns out, it was another company with a similar name at fault — not them.
Ask yourself: How can you ensure your sources are credible?
4. Craft a Genuine Message
Transparency and authenticity form the bedrock of your response. Address concerns directly, offering clarity, empathy and solutions. This is an opportunity to reinforce your connection with customers.
An esteemed family-owned vineyard was accused of environmental violations by an activist group. Their lawyer was tasked with drafting a response, but the messaging was filled with legalese, and sounded very “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Instead, we worked with the family member who penned the letters accompanying the wine club shipments to capture a genuine message and ran it by the attorney before it got sent.
Consider this: If you were on the receiving end, what would you appreciate in the other party’s response.
5. Strategic Engagement
While the digital world offers platforms for extensive dialogues, choosing interactions wisely is essential. Not every tweet or comment demands attention. Respond to constructive feedback, always maintaining respect. Strategize on when to speak and when to let silence prevail.
An elite boutique investment firm found itself unjustly lumped in with a massive industry-wide Ponzi scheme. While they could’ve stayed silent, assuming their clientele would never question their integrity, we suggested a proactive approach. Guided by our strategy, they began making phone calls prepped with talking points to address client concerns and highlight their longstanding ethical practices, which would make running a Ponzi scheme impossible.
Ponder: Which engagements align most closely with your brand’s image?
6. Reflection and Evolution
Once the immediate PR storm subsides, it’s vital to reflect. Identify triggers, assess your strategies, and formulate preventive measures. Every crisis holds lessons that can shape future approaches.
Think about: What were the significant takeaways from this experience?
We dove into this wild entrepreneurial ride to call our own shots and we’re no strangers to unexpected twists. So, when outsiders try to shake us up with PR hiccups, look at them as speed bumps – not stop signs.
Are you leading your business through crisis? EO members can log in to access resources on how to navigate running your business in crisis on the EO Learning Management System’s special section, Leading in Times of Crisis.