By: Jennifer Goddard Combs
Public relations crises are inescapable. Anyone in business can expect at some point to encounter a difficult customer, client, employee or circumstance whose actions or words have the potential to hurt them, their business and their professional reputation.
If you have a business client who’s been hit with negative publicity, there are some basic things for them to consider – like, for instance, whether they should respond to it at all. As Abraham Lincoln once wisely noted, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.”
This is not to say businesses should never acknowledge something unfortunate that has adversely affected them or their commerce. In many instances, the best response is with clear and decisive words and actions; in other cases, though, the better move may be to walk away. They’ll first have to determine which makes the most practical sense.
Define ‘PR crisis’
At The Goddard Company, a locally based public relations firm specializing in reputation management, we interpret a PR crisis as any news or event that threatens the reputation or safety of a businessperson or the health and wellbeing of a business stakeholder.
PR crises can befall the smallest of companies and the most gigantic corporations; they can run the gamut from a scathing online review to the national recall of a major consumer product.
Whatever the size or nature of the business, if your client has experienced an incident of any magnitude that falls under this broad definition and if they’re considering their next steps, they’ll have to first ask a few preliminary questions:
§ Is it untrue? Did your client NOT actually do or experience what is being alleged?
§ Could their silence alone dispel the negative energy? In other words, is the critical event not connected to any prominent lawsuits, media outlets or online accounts?
§ Is the incident contained? Is your client in the driver’s seat, with no one else controlling the narrative?
If the answer is yes to *all* of these questions, then they should be able to safely step away from the fire and move on. No need to “feed the dragon.”
On the other hand, if what’s out there is true and if the event is general public information or if someone else is driving the story, they may want to do something.
The first thing to do, of course, is to seek professional guidance. Companies like ours exist not only to help our clients market their products and services but also to maintain the good names they’ve spent their careers building. This can be a tougher task these days, in a world with an ever-widening web and savvier-than-ever consumers.
According to a recent study, 91 percent of consumers regularly or occasionally read online reviews, 90 percent are positively influenced by a good review and 86 percent are negatively influenced by a bad one.
Whether it’s on Google, Yelp or any other digital media outlet, consumers’ online comments are eminently important. They can hit businesses right in their virtual pocketbooks and, for better or worse, they can turn entire careers.
That’s why in recent years it has become an imperative for all businesses to consider online reputation management along with search engine optimization in their digital marketing budgets.
Online reputation management is a vast and complex area of marketing that continues to be defined. What’s clear, though, is that businesspeople at all levels in all fields should know where they stand in the virtual firmament and their best options for maintaining their online reputations.
Forming a plan
Once your client has decided to publicly acknowledge a potential PR crisis, they need to decide the most measured, least obtrusive response. Remember, they’re “feeding the dragon”; overreacting can stoke the flames of a beast best fed sparingly.
This is where we can help: As the reach of the internet continues to grow, the first advice we give our clients is to not attempt their own remediation plans; companies like ours exist to provide professional guidance in an increasingly complex public-facing world.
We offer our clients a service to scan the internet and review the relevant review sites, to find out what’s out there and recommend the most beneficial responses.
Even if the crisis has spread, with a good marketing plan that includes honesty and humility, humor when appropriate and an apology only when it’s fully warranted, we can generally knock the problem down pretty quickly and get your client back to the work they’re here to do.
PR professional Jennifer Goddard Combs, of The Goddard Company Public Relations & Reputation Management, has worked with a number of attorneys and law firms throughout her more than 20 years generating successful publicity campaigns for companies, products and nonprofits locally, regionally and nationally. The Goddard Company is at 550 Maple St., Suite G, Carpinteria, CA 93103; 805-565-3990. Visit www.thegoddardcompany.com.