“Only you can prevent forest fires!”
Those are the wise words of Smokey the Bear. I remember sitting in class and being impressed with this bear’s mission: he wanted to teach the world the simple steps to PREVENTING a forest fire. He was not trying to turn kids into firefighters – that would be silly and dangerous – he just wanted us to help stop them from happening all together. So wise.
In PR we have the opposite situation: there are hundreds of articles that offer tips to manage a PR crisis – AKA putting out the fire – but very few that offer tips on how to avoid the crisis altogether. As a matter of fact, I recently wrote one of these articles covering the 10 Steps to preventing a PR Crisis – I too fell into the trap of skipping over prevention and moving to extinguishing.
I’m sorry, Smokey. I forgot your lessons. I’m here to right my wrongs by encouraging my peers to focus on preventing PR crises as much as being prepared to battle them.
Remember: ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT A PR CRISIS!
8 Tips For Avoiding A PR Crisis
- 1. Make the ethical choice: If you only pay attention to one tip on this list, let it be this one. So often I read a story about a company or person that is in the midst of a PR crisis that could have been avoided all together if the right decision were made from the beginning. The spectrum of categories these decisions may fall into is broad, such as giving the proper response to a customer service inquiry, adding the right features to a product launch, or making a tough call on a product recall simply because it’s the right thing to do. The key is to do the right thing. Doing the right thing will always lead to better results and many fewer PR crises. Ethical businesses and people have fewer PR crises; it’s a simple fact.
- 2. Be transparent: Businesses need to be as transparent as possible these days. After all we’re PR pros, not the CIA; we can be upfront about most things. By remaining transparent, we leave less to the imagination and so there’s less for people to wonder about. If you build transparency into your brand and messaging, your customers will learn to expect it, and in the end you’ll gain respect that leads to trust. Trusted brands have fewer crises.
- 3. Encourage fantastic customer service: How many times have you seen a story about a consumer that has been wronged by an evil retail company? If you are anything like me, many times. Many of these situations can be avoided by simply providing great customer service and solving a problem before it has a chance to escalate. In customer service the old adage “the customer is always right” is a simple philosophy that can help head off a crisis.
- 4. Invest in monitoring tools: Actively monitoring social media and online media with a great monitoring tool will help you see problems as they brew, before they become big problems. Did I mention that Meltwater sells such monitoring tools?
- 5. Define Social Media Guidelines: In today’s online world it is imperative that some social media guidelines are in place to ensure that employees are not sharing or communicating inappropriate information publicly. Like you, I’ve seen countless companies make public apologies for the content their employees share on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Prevent that fire by preparing a social media policy.
- 6. Avoid knee-jerk reactions: This tip is quite simple: always think before you react. By fully thinking through how you’ll react to a situation, be they big or small, corporate or personal, you will always do better by avoiding a knee jerk reaction. I’ve seen many companies, and celebrities for that matter, cause problems for themselves by quickly shooting off a tweet that simply was not thought through. Think before you act and you’ll avoid many PR crisis pitfalls..
- 7. Create consistent messaging for customer facing employees: Make sure all outward facing employees have access to accurate messaging that is consistent with you brand. Generally, providing basic messaging will cover your bases so long as employees know how to escalate if conversations veer off script. The goal is to make sure everyone knows what can be said and that they understand that everything else should be escalated (within reason).
- 8. Be responsive: This tip is for you, PR pro. Before a story is run that will expose your PR crisis, you’ll often receive a call or email from a diligent reporter. Do not hide! Get back to that reporter ASAP. Be very transparent and do everything you can to get your story, statement and action plan into their hands. Even if you are not sure what your actions will be, don’t let the message sit. Call back and tell them “we are actively looking into this situation and will be able to provide more information within the hour.” Most reporters will respect that you are working hard to get the answer they need. If you follow rules 1, 2, 3 and 4 in your conversation with the reporter there’s a good chance you’ll come out OK.
Practice all of these things and you’ll likely avoid a crisis or two. Trust me, it’s worth avoiding a crisis whenever possible. I can tell you that most CEOs will be thrilled if you manage to prevent a crisis all together, likely even more so than when you solve an active crisis.
Now, let’s not pretend that you can always avoid a crisis, you cant, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try!
So there you have it, Smokey: 8 tips for preventing a PR crisis. Have I done you proud?