Public relations crises affect organizations of all sizes — negative reviews and events do not discriminate. While PR nightmares are almost impossible to see coming and even more challenging to prevent, an effective crisis communication plan can help businesses and organizations minimize damage, restore trust and strengthen bonds with the public.
A nimble response is crucial to navigating a crisis. Although no two dilemmas are the same, there are foundational crisis communication strategies PR professionals can incorporate to ensure their teams know how to handle a PR crisis when one arises.
Developing a crisis communication plan and crisis communication strategies is an integral part of PR. Preparing for and anticipating any possible scenario can yield significant dividends for both stakeholders and the community.
What is a PR Crisis?
Any industry or organization is certain to run into its share of difficult customers or individuals, but there’s a difference between an isolated experience and a situation big enough to elevate it to the level of a PR crisis. While there’s no set definition, an issue rises to a PR crisis when negative reviews or events surrounding an organization threaten to permanently or significantly harm its reputation.
The 2015 scandal involving Volkswagen is a perfect example that highlights why PR is important during a crisis. That year, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that some Volkswagen cars being sold in the U.S. had software in diesel engines that could sense when they were being tested for emissions and influence the results so that its vehicles passed the tests. The issue was compounded by the fact that VW had made a huge push to sell diesel cars in the U.S. based solely on the promise they were low-emission engines. After the EPA discovery, VW admitted that millions of cars around the globe were outfitted with the emission-sensing devices.
How did Volkswagen respond to this global PR crisis? Not well. The day the scandal broke, VW stopped posting to their social media accounts. It took four days for the company to post an apology from CEO Martin Winterkorn, which largely downplayed the transgression and did not address consumers’ concerns.
SUBJECT 1: And now the winner of the 2015 Motor Trend car of the Year Award, the Volkswagen Golf. Wait, also taking first place, the efficient Golf TDI Clean Diesel.
ATIKA SHUBERT: From the Golf to the iconic VW Beetle, Volkswagen has built a reputation for solid German engineering to last a lifetime at an affordable price. But now the VW brand is in danger of standing for something else– cheating. The US Environmental Protection Agency says Volkswagen cheated emissions testing by installing software to reduce emissions only during testing, pumping out as much as 40 times the legal limit on the road. The EPA ordered some 500,000 VW cars off the road, but Volkswagen concedes that the problem is even bigger than that, saying 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide could be affected. It has set aside more than $7 billion to cover the cost of recalls. Volkswagen’s CEO Martin Winterkorn released this statement.
MARTIN WINTERKORN: [SPEAKING GERMAN]
INTERPRETER: I am deeply sorry that we have broken this trust. I would like to make a formal apology to our customers, to the authorities, and to the general public for this misconduct. Please believe we will do everything necessary to reverse the damage. And we will do everything necessary to win back your trust step by step.
ATIKA SHUBERT: Made in Germany is a point of national pride, nowhere more so than Volkswagen’s hometown of Wolfsburg.
Now, from here you can see just how big the Volkswagen brand is to the idea of made in Germany. That is a tiny part of the factory. In fact, this entire area is the factory, one of the largest in the world. That’s about the size of the island of Gibraltar. They pump out more than 800,000 vehicles a year here. But the question is are they losing the trust of even their most loyal customers in Germany?
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, few in Wolfsburg wanted to comment on the scandal, many here are VW employees. But others spoke out.
SUBJECT 2: Of course, they should amend their production. And they should be fair and true to say what has happened. And I hope they can make it better in the future.
SUBJECT 3: [SPEAKING GERMAN]
INTERPRETER: They should put in an external investigator to check it and Mr. Winterkorn should resign.
SUBJECT 4: When it is made in Germany, then it means there is something worth to pay for.
ATIKA SHUBERT: Volkswagen maybe made in Germany, but it has a lot of explaining to do, not just to customers, but to the people who worked so hard to make Volkswagen a trusted brand. Atika Shubert, CNN, Wolfsburg, Germany.
Years later, after paying more than $30 billion in fines, penalties and lawsuits, Volkwagen is still dogged by the fallout. But by focusing on manufacturing truly environmentally friendly cars, it is working to rebuild its reputation.
“It makes them look perhaps a bit like they’re cleaning up their act in several ways, leaving the ‘Dieselgate’ embarrassment behind them and pioneering this new clean technology,” Wharton’s John Paul MacDuffie said in a podcast. “Volkswagen has had a shock to their strategy, and to their culture.”
Developing a Strategy and a Team
Successfully navigating a road bump in public perception begins before the problem emerges. Although organizations cannot possibly know the specifics of a crisis before it happens, having a crisis communication plan in place ahead of time allows them to adjust to any curves thrown their way.
“It’s important that the organization is able to react fast and speak with one voice, which is difficult to achieve when multiple people begin to speak on its behalf,” Evan Nierman, founder of Red Banyan, told Business News Daily.
A dedicated team is crucial during a PR crisis because it means that organizations can hone their messaging and communication. Having a unified tone during a crisis ensures that any statements and updates are consistent and clear. Similarly, this dedicated team can handle communicating with the affected parties and respond to any updates.
The crisis team also has to imbue their work with a sense of authenticity and transparency. Consumers and social media users are more adept than ever at identifying — and criticizing — what they perceive as inauthentic behavior, so straightforward truthfulness is key.
Speed is also valuable in the handling of PR crises. Teams need to be able to respond to and address the situation quickly, even if it evolves over time. As the Volkwagen example illustrates, going completely silent at the outset of a crisis can be incredibly damaging. Even if it’s just acknowledging the crisis, prompt communication is essential.
While crisis communication can differ depending on the situation, most well-handled crises follow a similar structure and contain similar information. Specifically, those communicating on behalf of the organization should have a clear and direct initial statement, a follow-up with more information, comprehensive talking points and answers to difficult questions the media — or the public — might ask.
Additionally, strategic communication is valuable during times of relative calm. It’s crucial for communication teams to engage with key audiences and demographics while things are going well so that if a crisis does emerge, the public will already be familiar with the company’s values and having that existing relationship will mitigate any potential harm.
When Crisis Management Goes Wrong
There are many examples of brands that mishandled their PR crises. Despite having millions of dollars and large organizations at their disposal, they ultimately provided a roadmap of what not to do when faced with a complex public relations situation.
One of the most clear-cut examples of bad crisis management is Tinder’s response to a 2015 article in Vanity Fair. Reporter Nancy Jo Sales wrote an article about the dating app and how its users approached dating. Some could infer from the article the users were shallow. Rather than ignoring it, the team behind Tinder’s Twitter account responded poorly. Vox.com compiled all of the tweets, which were directed squarely at Vanity Fair and even the author herself.
“Next time reach out to us first @nancyjosales… that’s what journalists typically do,” read one of the tweets.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with responding to some negative press. But the more than 30 tweets, some rather combative, not only served to draw more attention to the article but also became somewhat of a PR crisis on their own.
In an analysis of the situation on LinkedIn, content marketing expert Pontus Staunstrup wrote, “Don’t create your own crisis. If you want to respond to what you believe to be erroneous information, do so in a calm and collected fashion, and in a context that works. For example offering other sources to the journalist or making sure the information is published yourself. But never go on a rant on social media.”
As mentioned by Staunstrup, Tinder made one of the biggest mistakes when figuring out how to respond to a crisis: failing to limit the damage and fallout. When bad PR is almost inevitable, how one reacts is most important.
Crisis Communication Done Right
On the opposite end of the crisis communication plan spectrum from Tinder is the American Red Cross. The humanitarian nonprofit organization experienced a PR crisis in 2011 when a social media specialist, thinking she was logged into her personal Twitter account, shared the following from the official American Red Cross account:
“Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.”
According to the organization’s social media director, the tweet stayed up for about an hour, and the employee responsible for the rogue tweet took responsibility for the mishap. She said on her personal account it was due to her unfamiliarity with the scheduling software Hootsuite.
The Red Cross handled the PR crisis by addressing it head-on. Rather than hiding from it or throwing its employee under the bus, the account deleted the original message and followed it up with a good-natured clarification:
We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys.— American Red Cross (@RedCross) February 16, 2011
Additionally, the Red Cross’ social media director Wendy Harman went on to say that because the tweet was relatively harmless, it was the right decision to address it quickly and move on. “We are an organization that deals with life-changing disasters and this wasn’t one of them,” Harman said at the time. “It was just a little mistake.”
The Red Cross provided an effective demonstration of how to handle a PR crisis in an authentic, human way. This example is one that crisis communication teams can seek to emulate.
How PR Professionals Hone Their Skills
Becoming an expert in navigating the digital media landscape has become a crucial skill, especially when the currency of an organization’s online reputation continues to rise in value. But like any skill, it requires training and practice to truly master. The fast-paced environment of PR and advertising requires someone who is an adept storyteller, quick on their feet and understands the complexities of different audiences.
Public relations and communications experts can apply their skills in various roles across many different industries. In addition to developing crisis communication strategies as public relations managers, experts in the field can also work as market research analysts, social media managers or communications managers.
Sacred Heart University’s M.A. in Strategic Communication and Public Relations not only examines why PR is important during a crisis, but provides students with the skills to become experts in messaging and communications. The expert faculty teaches courses about crisis communication, social media strategies and the latest tech and software to enhance digital PR. The self-paced, fully online structure of Sacred Heart’s program helps students take classes that fit their schedule so they can become the communicators of the future without having to take time away from their current careers.