Quick background, Jim and I worked together at Luckie and Company in Birmingham, Ala., (ROLL TIDE!) in the late 2000s. Since then, we have established not only a personal friendship, but a growing respect for our mutual industries. Jim's speciality is public relations, you can find additional information at the bottom of this article about him and his practice.
Because I don't claim to know everything, but I do claim to get you actionable content that you can actually use, I thought it was best to bring in Jim's muscle (heyo!). I hope this Q&A will benefit you over a long period of time as you prepare your business/brand for the future of what I fear will become an increasingly common occurrence.
What does a business or a brand need to do at a fundamental level to prepare themselves for a possible attack on the reputation?
First of all, remember that an attack on your reputation is often a side effect to a greater physical crisis. While dealing with the attack on your brand, you must simultaneously work on correcting the initial cause. Is your travel brand being dragged through the mud on Twitter for stranding 200 of your passenger customers at a crowded international airport? Until you address the immediate needs of those angry and vocal costumers, efforts to address the social media backlash will be like putting a Band-Aid on a stab wound.
But the most important thing I tell people about preparation for a crisis is — do some. Everyone at every level in every organization should accept their responsibility to constantly prepare for the unexpected. The question is just how much preparation is necessary. You can never be too prepared for an image or brand crisis, but how much time you invest in your crisis management plan should be based on your overall risk.
For example, an IT firm that provides computer repair and networking services to small businesses has risk, but that risk is going to be on the “minimal” end of the spectrum. If someone loses their Internet connection or loses their data, there will be some angry customers, but it’s seldom likely to be more than an inconvenience. A community hospital with a diverse clientele, performing surgery on dozens of sick patients daily is going to be on the opposite, “high risk” end of that spectrum.
The more risk your organization is exposed to, the more crisis preparation needs to be a part of your regular business model. At minimum, you should form a crisis committee with representatives from every major department (finance, security, human resources, maintenance, operations, etc.) that meets regularly to create and maintain a crisis manual. The public relations department or representative should moderate this committee and hold ultimate responsibility for maintaining the crisis plan. All department heads should have this updated manual handy and should be intimately familiar with it.
The higher the risk, the more often your organization should hold tabletop drills. Generally hosted by the public relations function, this is an opportunity for everyone to walk through a variety of crisis scenarios. A health care provider, for instance, might hypothetically walk through how they would handle the effects of a family posting photos of their loved one in a hospital bed when recovering from what they are claiming to be inadequate care. Everyone, including the chief medical officer, billing manager, environmental services, human resources and of course, public relations would have a vital role to play in this situation.
I would recommend high-risk organizations also hold at least an annual live drill on property. This may even include the participation of outside groups, including local law enforcement and other emergency agencies.
When an attack takes place, what is the first thing a business should do? Take us through the first 24 hours.
Well, hopefully the business is prepared and can rely on a solid crisis management plan. The crisis communications committee should convene immediately at their pre-determined command location, bringing with them all the necessary resources to manage and communicate back to their departments as determined in their crisis plan. Again, real action must be taken to resolve the root crisis before communicating. Attempting to “dress” a nasty situation in your social media space or in the media without acknowledging a solid plan to remedy the issue at hand will backfire.
For some organizations another immediate step might include defaulting to an alternate operational structure. Going back to the 200 stranded travelers, part of the crisis plan for that scenario might include redirecting associates from functions not related to the crisis, to more crucial, temporary roles. Finance associates are assisting booking agents, and human resources personnel are distributing water and snacks to hungry and anxious customers.
More creative strategies are employed based on the situation. For the 200 angry travelers, I would advise getting them to some place comfortable as soon as possible. They might also appreciate the ability to charge phones or borrow disposable phones to call friends and family. Do not try to block communication! This can backfire as well. Instead, do what you can to become part of the solution and neutralize the situation as quickly as possible.
And of course, staff up your media and social media team and have them at the ready. They will be crucial for both monitoring and responding to updates. Ten years ago, companies only needed to be concerned with traditional media communication. But today everyone has an online voice, and your organization needs to prepare, fortify and effectively utilize its own digital space. Ready the dark sites, man the phones, and review all digital security to prevent a crisis from getting worse via hacking.
Part of any good plan will include an up-to-date list of relevant contacts, and another first step should be reaching out to the appropriate agencies, organizations and individuals. Connecting the 200 travelers with your best local hotel contacts would be a great start. But keep your legal, law enforcement and public relations team contacts informed every step of the way, as their input will be crucial beyond the first 24 hours.
What are the differences between a standard press release and messaging to the public in a crisis management situation?
Generally, crisis messaging is going to be shorter and more concise. When distributing a press release any other day of the week, your audience might be described as passive and your message as one way. But during a crisis, you should expect a more active audience interested in two-way communication.
Every word counts, so make sure all messages are reviewed by a central public relations function. Do not comment out of turn, and politely collect incoming comment requests so they can be referred to the larger team.
The question that comes to everyone's mind is, "When do I react?" I'm assuming that this is done in stages? Can you take me through a few of those?
Naturally, responses and response times should be tailored by your communications professional for the specific need. There actually may be times when responding is not appropriate. A company should carefully consider acknowledging and therefore giving credibility to unfounded or ludicrous claims that will be recognized for what they are and dismissed by their intended audiences.
» Example: “Company X should be boycotted after firing me for no good reason. They have no sense of fashion and I will continue to wear my colorful collection of jeggings whenever I want!” » Response: Your communications team will likely advise leaving this one alone and simply monitoring for any follow up. Aside from the HR implications in discussing her employment online, engaging someone like this is not going to be pretty. Keep it on the radar, but in all likelihood the general population will see right through this sort of thing and it will move to the background.
Similarly, watch out for “bait” complaints. Just as “professional guests” have complained via phone calls, snail mail or even broadcast media for decades in hopes of securing free products or services, there will always be individuals attempting to hold your brand hostage in your social media space.
» Example: A Facebook post pops up with a claim that “Your employees were rude to my family last week and your facility was dirty. We deserve a refund!” » Response: You probably need to jump on this one and take the conversation to a direct line of communication as soon as possible. There may be a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed here, but your immediate concern should be that a customer is angry enough to lash out in public rather than approach you directly for a specific solution.
In a situation involving slander or defamation of character, how does your messaging position change in defense of the brand or business that you're working for?
In terms of how you communicate, not much will change. But this is where you will definitely want to bring in your legal counsel and consider action. If things get really hot and your accuser is clearly out of control, you will need to measure and possibly limit your responses in favor of pending legal action. But one thing you will never hear a PR practitioner (that’s worth his salt) say is “no comment.”
Again, someone who calls your tax preparation services awful and your associates’ unfriendly needs their grievances addressed. An individual claiming your tax firm purposely cheats customers similarly needs to be addressed. But when the wild accusations continue in the public forum, you should consider legal action as well.
In the court of public opinion it's only a matter of time until we begin to forget about a particular situation. Take us through how long the business should pursue a positioning campaign, and how do you make it go away faster? What are the best media channels in situations such as these?
First of all, the best way to deal with bad news is with clear, concise honesty. Address the issue and move on. But if your bad news won’t die, I hate to say it, but look to the strategies of politicians. This is the sort of thing they deal with on a daily basis with the enormous amount of issues they are involved in.
The classic way to get out of a bad news rut is with good news. A savvy politician always keeps a good news announcement card up her sleeve for a rainy day. Just be careful. If it’s not news and it’s clearly a poor attempt at diversion, it can backfire.
If appropriate, your brand may want to consider news that addresses your bad news issue in a classy way. And speaking of classic, remember “new” Coke? They fixed that problem quickly with an announcement that consumers would have a choice that included the original formula they loved, with the cool new name “Coca-Cola Classic”.
And remember that time can eventually heal your bad news wounds. As difficult as it may be for a professional communicator to admit, sometimes the most appropriate course of action is to NOT communicate. Remember Anthony Weiner? There was just no way that the news of running for mayor of New York was going to help anyone in that situation. Sometimes no news really is good news.
In the case of KFC's crisis with the Victoria Wilcher hoax, what you think KFC media relations did right? What you think that KFC could have done better in this case?
In my opinion, KFC responded well under the circumstances. In hindsight, we can make all sorts of suggestions and tweaks to their strategy. But it appears they succeeded in turning the tide of public opinion as well as could be expected. And at least for the time being, the news has dissipated.
Once the hoax was revealed, KFC was left in a neutral spot. How does a brand eloquently distance themselves without looking like they are saying, "I told you so."
As of today, KFC is in somewhat neutral territory, with only limited sources reporting back on facts discovered in the case. While some are probably waiting on more to come, I am inclined to say this limited reaction on the part of the company was purposeful. Aside from the allegations made about a single employee, their actions so far have been polite and respectful. To come forward with clear and damning proof might seem harsh, even if they are in the right.
It is often said that we should never underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups. In communications theory, this is more politely categorized as “group think.” Well, the same applies in the digital world. When a group of people jump on a highly-charged emotional issue like this, only to find out they may be very wrong – it’s not wise to rub it in their faces. KFC may simply be letting everyone disperse, cool off and consider an honest and private dialogue rather than injecting any sort of revealing proof in the public forum.
Right now, the accusers very well may be taking the hint and realizing this is the most graceful way out for them. Now that the Facebook page has been taken offline and the news crews have moved on, they should find more constructive ways to help this child.
Jim Taylor —
Jim Taylor got his start in public relations more than 15 years ago. He has lead successful public relations campaigns for national brands in the tourism, packaged foods, lawn and garden, real estate, and healthcare sectors – just to name a few.
Jim’s media relations expertise brings him clients such as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and hundreds of consumer and trade publications in the United States and worldwide. He has generated coverage for his clients on CNN, the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox and Friends, and local market television shows and radio programs across the country – sometimes appearing as the spokesperson himself.
A true language and communication enthusiast by nature, Jim thrives on creative problem solving that has earned the respect of both his clients and media. His strong background in media relations, crisis communications and digital media has made him a valuable asset to both agency and internal communications teams.
Jim Taylor Public Relations is a communications firm specializing in results-based solutions for consumer brands. They offer communications management services to a variety of clients in the fast casual dining, consumer product, engineering, healthcare and travel and tourism industries.
NOTE FROM JUSTICE: Don't let the suit and tie fool you everyone, Jim plays a very mean guitar and is a fanatical TOOL fan.