Tips for Handling Bad PR

How to stop negative situations from reaching Defcon 1

So, things have gone sideways at your company and you’re looking at a potential bad PR nightmare. What’s the best way to handle it?

Well, for some, there’s the time-worn saying that there’s no such thing as bad PR. You’ll typically find that uttered by someone who is overly optimistic or fond of platitudes. Or someone who is hoping that if they ignore the situation, it dies down before metaphorically burning everything to the ground.

Let’s be honest; bad PR sucks, especially if it’s a major headache and you’re the one responsible for mitigating it. How your brand responds to a full-blown crisis (or something of a lesser magnitude) is critical to how it affects the company’s image. When confronted by a PR fire, are you going to:

  1. Deal with it effectively?
  2. Let it smolder and hope it goes out?
  3. Dump gas on it like an arsonist?

(Pro tip: Go with option 1).

Let’s take a look at how you get things under control without inadvertently making things worse.

Acknowledge the problem

When a PR problem crops up, you can pretend nothing is wrong, but it isn’t going away on its own. If your company screws up or is just an unfortunate victim of circumstances, you need to own the situation and get in front of it as quickly as possible. However, having said that, you still need to be careful before launching a knee-jerk reaction. Depending on the circumstances, your team may need to discuss a nuanced response. It’s important that you convey the right message because the wrong approach can do more damage. A lot more.

Failing to own up to a problem can quickly escalate the situation and turn it into a cascading PR disaster. Back in 2014, an episode of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares featured a Scottsdale restaurant, Amy’s Baking Company. The episode did not go well for the restaurant’s owners and their outrageous behavior generated tons of negative responses on social media. Rather than handling the undesirable social media professionally and acknowledging their mistakes, the owners counterattacked and epically went to war with the internet. The move turned out for them as well as you would expect. Their unhinged behavior and lack of professionalism intensified the backlash and put their restaurant on the national map – but not in a good way. It was spectacular to behold in a Schadenfreude way and a case study in what not to do.

Not surprisingly, Amy’s Baking Company struggled along for a while before finally going out of business.

Be sincere

Taking responsibility for a difficult situation shows your company is being forthcoming. It is an essential step to restoring public opinion and confidence. However, a word of caution. A half-hearted or canned response could scuttle your attempts to salvage the situation. And the public can sense insincerity like a shark can smell blood in the water.

An example of someone handling a difficult situation with sincerity and class occurred in 2014. During a test flight, Virgin Galactic crashed, killing one test pilot and injuring another. CEO Richard Branson responded to the tragedy not as an executive but as a leader and a compassionate human being. Rather than convening his executive team to map out a response to the crisis, Branson immediately tweeted out the following message, a refreshingly human response:

Continuing with his open communication, Branson later went into more details about the accident in a lengthy blog post.

Make things right

While saying you’re sorry is an excellent start to limiting fallout, your company still needs to actively repair a negative situation.

In 2018, Southwest Airlines, a brand that consumers loved (and the safest airline in the world), had its first in-air fatality. On April 17, a Southwest flight out of New York made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after an engine exploded in flight and killed a passenger. Other passengers captured the immediate aftermath on their phones, creating visceral fear among the public. The airline issued a quick tweet about the situation to reassure the public:

Judging by the airline’s response to the situation, Southwest’s staff had a strategy in place for such an event and carried it off flawlessly. It ensured passengers had accommodations and travel arrangements, as well as immediate trauma counseling. For passengers who stayed in Philadelphia, staff slipped notes under their doors to remind them support was available.

In the days following the passenger’s death, the company stayed on point and the CEO made a sincere statement to all involved, including the deceased passenger’s family. Additionally:

  • The staff pulled all the airline’s advertising from social media
  • All passengers received personal phone calls and emails offering support and counseling resources
  • Passengers received $5,000 and a $1,000 Southwest travel voucher in consideration of what they endured
  • Southwest’s social media team monitored social media to stay in touch with public sentiment

Follow through

One of the most important things a company needs to do in a PR crisis is follow through on its promises. Be honest and realistic when addressing how you will make things right to consumers and the public. Making promises not rooted in reality is setting the company up for more problems and undermining its credibility. People love to pile on when things turn negative. Failing to follow through puts a giant bullseye on your organization.

Starbucks faced an ugly situation after one of its employees called the police who arrested two young black men who hadn’t bought anything but were waiting for a friend. Another patron recorded the arrests and it went viral.

Instead of playing it off as one employee’s overreaction and an isolated occurrence, Starbucks’s CEO issued a statement:

The fact that what happened in our store last Thursday and the outcome from that incident was reprehensible. That should not have happened, it was wrong, and my role and responsibility as CEO is to learn, to understand it and fix it. – Kevin Johnson, CEO, Starbucks

Putting the company’s money where his mouth is, Johnson closed over 8,000 U.S. stores to conduct Racial Bias Training. The move cost Starbucks an estimated $12 million but Johnson wanted to bring a culture change in the organization to reduce racial bias among the staff. Starbucks’s CEO felt it a necessary step to take to help restore the public’s faith in the company.

Don’t back down

Sometimes your company may need to handle negative PR by addressing false accusations aggressively. This occurred when a plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell claiming the beef product the company used was misleadingly labeled because it didn’t contain enough meat under USDA standards to qualify as beef. Taco Bell stood its ground and countersued. It then invited consumers to visit its locations for a free taco so they could judge the quality of its product firsthand. It did this in conjunction with an advertising campaign it used to refute the claims made in the lawsuit, which the plaintiff soon dropped.

Conclusion on handling bad PR

When it comes to bad PR, transparency can be one of your most powerful tools for counteracting negative publicity. When you consistently operate above board, people have less reason to question your motives when things go wrong and will be more willing to cut your organization some slack, especially when you move to address or correct problematic issues.

Remember these keys to turning a bad PR situation around. Make sure you acknowledge the problem. Be sincere in addressing it. Follow through on your promises. And if you need to defend your brand against false statements, do so vigorously.

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