Public relations nightmares can come in varying degrees of severity—from a negative review on Yelp to a scandal of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn variety. As a small business owner, you are less likely to deal with the latter, but it still pays to be prepared for anything.
“The most important thing about surviving a public relations crisis is planning ahead,” says Jenna Oltersdorf, principal at Snackbox, a public relations and design firm in Austin, Texas.
Oltersdorf recommends business owners brainstorm a list of things that could go wrong (think death of an employee, finger in chili…you get the idea). Once you have a list, appoint key people who will help handle the crisis.
“You need to establish who will be the face of the company; you don’t want reporters hearing conflicting messages from several members of the company; you need a point person,” she says.
From there, discuss crisis protocol. Here are a few procedural tips.
This may seem a little touchy-feely, but it is essential to keep a level head in the face of a firestorm.
In case of a bad online review, for example, Melissa Cassera, publicity expert at Cassera Communications, reminds businesses that you can’t please everyone, and to look on the bright side.
“Look at this as an opportunity to fix something that is wrong in your business,” she says.
Jennifer Berson, president of Jeneration PR, a Sherman Oaks, California-based public relations firm focused on fashion, beauty, and lifestyle, says it is vital to respond as fast as possible.
"A day is too long; even if you don’t have all the information you need, at a minimum you should be telling people that you are aware of the issue and will provide more information the following day,” she says.
Hiding under the covers won’t work. If you have a real public relations nightmare on your hands, people are already talking. You just need to get into that conversation.
“Issue a written statement acknowledging the problem and where it is stemming from; then explain exactly what you are doing to fix it—it shows that you are part of the solution, not the problem,” Cassera says.
Remember: as bad as it may be, honesty is always the best policy, Berson notes.
Join in on the conversation around the controversy. For example, if you get a negative customer service review, Cassera suggests dealing with the problem head-on.
“Respond to their comment by writing something like, ‘We apologize for your negative experience and would like you to know that we are retraining our customer service staff to be able to provide the highest level of service; we’d love for you to come back—please call us for a private appointment,’” she says.
Launch a positive campaign
Bad PR doesn’t have to stick in everyone’s minds; it can be replaced by positive thoughts of an organization.
“Go on a positive press campaign; even though negative things about your company will stay online forever, you can push them down to Page Three or Four on Google, and no one goes to those pages anyway,” Cassera says.
She recommends showcasing something positive your company is already doing—like involvement in a community event or charity.
"Write a release about good things your company is doing and post it on press release websites like PR.com and PR Web,” she says. “Also, ask your happy customers to go online and write reviews. Pretty soon, people will start thinking positively about your company again.”