Large or small, even the best-managed businesses may be hit by an unexpected public relations crisis. These can be recalls of dangerous or contaminated products, a civil product liability lawsuit, or some other unforeseen disaster that may hurt sales, the bottom line, and/or reflect badly on a company's image.

When a public relations crisis strikes, a CEO's initial reaction may be to stonewall the press and refuse to comment. Public relations experts who have successfully handled numerous crises which threatened to destroy a company's sales and public image say this is the wrong way to handle the problem. In fact, they urge the opposite — an immediate and full public disclosure. This is the proven method to successfully defuse such crises and resolve them favorably. An honest and vigorous public relations initiative which includes damage control and an opportunity to rebuild the public perception of your company is the preferred approach.

How to Meet a Crisis Head-On

Although every crisis will have unique aspects, there are general principles which apply to most of them. Whatever the crisis, the media and the public want to know what happened. Your customers want to know why it happened and how can it be fixed, including any possible compensation for damages or inconveniences they might have suffered.

The guiding principle for handling such crises is: tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and tell it immediately. State publicly only what is known, just the facts. Do not make statements that assume, guess, or speculate on any aspect of the crisis. Make certain that legal counsel examines all statements before being released. Concealing facts regarding the crisis will in most cases backfire, because the media can uncover them, report the information widely and damage the company further than it was already damaged.

Addressing the Media

In most instances where a public relations crisis affects a company, the media will contact either the firm's CEO, the company spokesperson or public relations department (if there is one) or some member of senior management. Reporters will ask for specific explanations and statements they can quote in their reporting.

It's recommended to designate a crisis management team or individual and direct all requests for information to an appropriate member of the group or the spokesperson. Do not allow anyone else in the company to speak to the media. Internal information about the crisis should only be given to members of the crisis management team and/or spokesperson to ensure that the company speaks with a single, consistent voice. If there are technical aspects to be disclosed relating to the crisis, an authority in that specialty should be designated to interact with the media.

The public statement should also include how people might be affected by the problem. This would include informing customers who might have bought a recalled, flawed or contaminated product. In these cases, the company should provide a refund or equal-priced replacement for the product. In some cases, a contaminated product should be disposed of, and customers who have purchased such a product should be properly informed.

When addressing the public and/or the media, present a calm, compassionate face. Denying responsibility or accountability for the situation creates more customer and public hostility. Keep in mind, this approach is different than admitting liability, a legal issue determined in a court: but again, clear public statements with legal counsel.

The CEO might also offer the media a real-time or recorded interview in which all questions are answered. A live broadcast on television or an appearance on a social media channel taking questions from customers is another effective means of handling the crisis. It may also be necessary to hire a public relations firm or expert consultant in crisis management techniques. Even if press coverage is extensive, it might also be advisable to buy advertising in broadcast, internet, and social media to help address the crisis.

A prepared press release, either created in-house or by an outside public relations or media relations firm, can also address the crisis at greater length and with more detail than a public statement. The press release might also contain a question and answer exchange, anticipating what the public would want to know about the crisis. The Q&A format provides general information in short paragraphs of sometimes just a sentence or two, and is easy to read and understand.

Legal issues should be discussed with counsel. Attorneys may urge an all-inclusive "no comment" to media, until the legal aspects of the crisis are fully understood and addressed. There may also be insurance issues to be considered and applicable policies should be examined by attorneys.

The downside in the "no comment" approach, however, is often increased media investigation, and an unfavorable public image. If and when the crisis results in the filing of civil lawsuits, or even criminal prosecutions, the refusal to comment by the company being sued will have a negative impact on the jury.

What to Expect During a Crisis

Even after a public statement or statements have been made by the company experiencing the crisis, the media may continue to ask questions about matters both addressed in the statements, and about those not addressed. This may continue for days or weeks after the initial crisis is reported.

The affected company should also expect customers to be angry and disappointed. These are natural reactions, and if the company acts in a responsible manner, these emotions should eventually fade away and be replaced with a renewed loyalty to the brand. Customers may appear at stores, for example, demanding refunds for recalled or faulty goods, or for affected services. The company should initiate an immediate full refund or replacement policy to restore goodwill among customers. An additional bonus to affected customers in the form of a gift card or discount coupons will also help rebuild customer loyalty.

Public relations experts urge the company to be patient, and to continue its cooperation with the media while answering their questions completely. The same approach is also urged in response to customer complaints. Drafting a new, more comprehensive guarantee of products and/or services should inspire consumer confidence, and may even spur more vigorous sales in the wake of the crisis.

Once the crisis seems to be diminishing, the company may consider a brief advertising campaign in digital or traditional media to further disseminate and reinforce your message. The PR-advertising message should be posted on all available digital content channels as well.

Points to emphasize in the advertising should include:

  • The company's policy of full refunds or replacements of the affected product
  • Steps taken to prevent a recurrence of the problem
  • New guarantees
  • New incentives (bonus gift cards, discounts, etc.) to recapture lost business
  • An apology for any inconvenience caused by the crisis

The Bottom Line

A quick, honest, full disclosure response to a crisis is the best way of controlling damage, maintaining the trust of your customer base and minimizing loss of sales, which in most cases is inevitable. Eventually, however, if the principles of crisis management are implemented, sales should be recovered, along with credibility, consumer trust, and a restored public image.