Handle Crisis Management Like a PR Pro
If crisis management in 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that public relations is an essential part of any business. Qualified PR professionals can improve your company’s reputation, change customer sentiment, and even manage social media, just to name a few of their skills. When people think about PR, however, they often think of PR disasters. Crisis communication is an essential skill for any good public relations group. Any company, however, can follow these tips in order to handle crisis management.
Crisis Management is perhaps the most daunting aspect of PR. From the “United Breaks Guitars” fiasco to Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad, a crisis can happen at any time. Usually, crises are the fault of your business, whether by accident, unavoidable disaster, or oversight. The trick is to respond quickly and effectively. In this social media age, people expect responses immediately. When companies ignore the issue for too long, it can become an even bigger problem. For example, when Cosmopolitan issued the headline “How This Woman Lost 44 Pounds without *ANY* Exercise” for an article about a woman with cancer, they never issued an apology. This caused an even bigger issue since people continued to talk about the gaff.
Social listening would have revealed the public outrage at such a headline. The problem was that Cosmopolitan never apologized. Unfortunately, social listening can only provide you with the information from your consumers. What your PR department chooses to do with such information is up to the corporate policy. It is therefore essential for all companies to have a crisis communications plan in order to prepare for an eventuality.
According to a top tip from PR Week:
– Be prepared to address the crisis in all markets. ‘Crises have never respected borders,’ says Edelman’s international director, crisis & issues management, Mike Seymour. PROs should be ready to communicate clearly with different markets.
– Do not think it requires a one-brush approach. Media, customs, and cultures vary in different markets. What works in one, may exacerbate the problem in another. ‘Make sure you have a robust response, but remember to tailor it to individual markets. I don’t believe we’ll ever get to a point where one size fits all,’ says Woolfall.
No one is exempt from the potential of a crisis. A good PR department will be prepared for this event. Every company should have a plan approved in case of a crisis. Think of it like a tornado plan in an elementary school: know your safe responses in case of an emergency and share it with everyone in your company.
According to Bernstein Crisis Management, there are ten steps for crisis communication:
- Anticipate Crises
- Identify Your Crisis Communications Team
- Identify Spokespersons
- Spokesperson Training
- Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems
- Identify and Know Your Stakeholders
- Develop Holding Statements
- Assess the Crisis Situation
- Finalize and Adapt Key Messages
- Post-Crisis Analysis
To explain these steps, it is best done with a case study. Let’s take the recent Dove commercial for their soap, a gif which featured a black woman taking off her shirt and turning into a white woman. The commercial continued to show the white woman taking off her shirt to reveal a third woman, however, the initial transition caused a public backlash. One person compared it to racist ads from history in which soap companies tried to promote their product by showing it turning black people white.
Now, had Dove followed the first step of the crisis communication plan, we might not be here. If they had analyzed their commercial beforehand with the public in mind, they might never have released it. Unfortunately, they apparently did not anticipate a crisis occurring from one commercial, even though they had a similar problem in with an ad in 2011. An image in 2011 showed the before and after effects of their product on skin, with three women standing in front. In this ad, the woman stood from darker to lighter, with the black woman being on the before side.
The next step would be to identify a crisis communications team. Dove is actually a client of Edelman, one of the top public relations firms in the nation. Theoretically, they would have already set up a crisis communications team, including possible spokespersons. In the 2011 incident, Edelman actually spoke for Dove in a statement to Gawker:
“All three women are intended to demonstrate the ‘after’ product benefit. We do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience.”
While Edelman responded directly to this incident, finding a spokesperson for different events can be an important element to any response. Someone might be more suited to social media, for example, while someone different might be better for a televised response.
Dove immediately noticed the backlash as people publicly spoke against the company for releasing the commercial. Social media has made this kind of immediate communication possible. A key monitoring system that can be used for crisis communication is social listening software. By doing so, you can monitor when people discuss your brand without even tagging your brand with @ or #. This allows you to see nearly all mentions of your company and easily see the positive and negative sentiment of each mention.
Dove’s stakeholders and consumers are clearly antagonistic to anything racist, and theoretically, Dove should have realized this after the 2011 ad, however, they didn’t learn their lesson. In order to make repairs on their reputation, an immediate apology was a necessary step. On Twitter and Facebook, they released these statements:
While this was a great first step, there will still be a period of time in which Dove will need to continue to build their reputation back up. In this most recent incident, Marissa Solan, a spokeswoman for Dove, said shortly after the release that the GIF “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong and, as a result, offended many people.” Clearly.
Marissa Solan also claimed that Dove had removed the post and was “re-evaluating our internal processes for creating and reviewing content.” She declined to say how many people reviewed the ad or whether any of them were African-American. While claiming to re-evaluate their internal processes for creating and reviewing content, real change will need to be seen in order to build trust with their consumers again.
Given all of these basic responses, Dove can create holding statements to respond to crises in the future. Holding statements are blanket statements that can be used in a variety of situations. An example from this case is “We deeply regret “x event” and the harm [and/or distress] it caused.” By having a Madlib-esque response ready, any company can immediately respond to a crisis in order to buy time for a full messaging structure to be organized.
Assuming you have prepared for a crisis, you can then analyze the crisis situation and respond accordingly with finalized key messages. In this case, Dove responded with a basic statement, then went more in depth, saying that they “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.” They also claimed to be changing their internal processes, which shows a general concern in the company and a realization of the need for change. While people were still initially unhappy with the fiasco, this response proved best in putting out the fires. Now, very little is being said about Dove just a couple weeks later.
Compared to other PR disasters, such as when United forcibly dragged off a passenger from an overbooked flight, Dove handled the situation well. Dove apologized specifically for being insensitive, which is what the public demanded. United’s CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for “having to re-accommodate … customers,” rather than the actual incident of dragging a screaming man off the flight.
The final step of any good PR campaign is an evaluation. After everything has been sorted out, a post-crisis analysis is necessary in order to strengthen your company’s crisis preparation for the future. By analyzing what was done right and what was done wrong to cause the crisis, as well as the response from the company, you can better ensure that a crisis will be less likely to happen again, but if it does, you will be prepared. In Dove’s case, they clearly did not learn their lesson with the first ad that was accused of being racist. If they had changed their internal processes of ad publication, this might not have happened again. This time, hopefully, they will “[re-evaluate their] internal processes for creating and reviewing content.” They will also follow their holding statement guidelines for responding to future crises.
Having a plan for crisis management is essential to any company policy. By monitoring customer values and responses, you can respond to any crisis if you follow a plan. The point is: crises can happen to anyone, at any time. By being prepared and listening to your consumers, you can weather the storm and come out on top.