Uber may top the current list of major companies with public relations worries. Its controversial CEO just keeps stepping in it, and even when he doesn’t, the bad headlines keep on coming. But while competitors may be sharpening their knives for Uber while the brand is down, there are some concrete steps a company can take to mitigate a crisis, rehabilitate its image and even emerge from the ashes stronger than ever.
Take the now notorious case of the Reese’s Christmas tree candy scandal. If you aren’t familiar, maybe that’s because the company did a good job turning a holiday campaign flop into gold.
Reese’s issued Christmas Tree-shaped Reese’s pieces that looked nothing like trees. The candies were miserable little oblong-shaped blobs, and the traditional and social media backlash began. Rather than fight the fail, Reese’s responded with a brilliant social media message about “tree-shaming” anchored by the #AllTreesAreBeautiful hashtag. The campaign netted nothing but good will and produced coverage from CNN to Fortune to Fox. Would that caliber of earned media coverage have been possible if the candy trees had been more realistic replicas? We think not.
A fun fix like the one dreamed up by Reese’s isn’t always on option. But owning and even embracing a mistake when you can is good first step. There are other important measures to employ at the first signs of negative press as well.
Have the right spokesperson in place. Typically this is a company CEO. But not all CEOs are up to the task. (Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s problems extend beyond his media demeanor, but it’s part of the overall problem.) We look to prepare CEOs and others at the outset of an engagement, well before a new product launch or other announcement that could possibly result in less-than-positive press. Media prep helps a press spokesperson present information fluently and respond calmly to questions. It can also help the team uncover the best individual to represent the company in different situations. It helps to run scenarios in advance to anticipate the possible outcomes for a given situation and have plans, messaging and statements prepared in advance. But even the best plans can go awry if something unexpected takes place, and that’s where a steady presence and a calm temperament can make all the difference.
Act quickly, yet thoughtfully. Whether your negative press stems from a product or service malfunction, an errant tweet or a more serious issue like a product recall, timing is critical. It’s bee argued that the amount of time it takes to adequately acknowledge and fix a problem directly correlates to the seriousness of the reputation backlash. Toyota stalled the recall of its faulty airbags until they had caused hundreds of injuries and crashed the company’s credibility. On the flip side, Nest Labs, an IoT industry darling, got wind of a potentially dangerous bug in its connected smoke detector and immediately issued a recall and even an online fix – well before reports of incidents or injuries. The resulting press was positive, noting the company’s proactive steps and Nest’s smart smoke detector was back on the market shortly thereafter.
Rally the base. And if you don’t have one, consider how to build it. Sometimes a negative backlash automatically inspires loyalists to rise to the occasion. It begins with a focused social media team who should always be monitoring conversations for sentiment and building relationships with influencers. A smart influencer relations strategy that builds loyalty won’t necessarily get a company out of hot water, but it will help give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s helpful as well to have a track record of being fair with journalists and other media. PR teams know which reporters have had positive dealings with a company can bring an open mind and a neutral tone to covering it. We worked with a CEO who was repeatedly the subject of vicious rumors planted by a politics blogger who tried to connect him to extremist organizations. Each time a troll re-emerged, we reached out to local media, who were familiar with the CEO’s reputation in the community, his track record of charitable giving, and his no-holds-barred attitude toward responding to rumors honestly and fully. The resulting coverage won the day.
Set an example for your industry. It could be argued that no sector suffers the brunt of customer and media criticism as often as the airline industry. JetBlue has taken a stand to right wrongs twice in its storied history. The airline issued its now famous Passenger Bill of Rights following customer complaints after a snowstorm a decade ago. It stated among other things, that passengers would receive compensation at various levels depending on the inconvenience and hardship they experience. In 2014, the company stranded a bunch of passengers in Barbados after weather caused cancellations and then it eliminated several well-loved perks that had been the brand’s hallmarks. Jet Blue has been able to weather these storms as well. It has expanded routes and created the popular “Fly it Forward” campaign, through which the company offers free flights to citizens who perform good deeds. In each instance, the company acted quickly to restore its reputation and in so doing, provided a wake-up call to the airline industry. JetBlue also continues to rank highest in customer satisfaction in its airline segment.
It’s important to remember that although the public and the press are quick to judge harshly, they are also quick to help resurrect a reputation. The difference between companies that can salvage and rebuild their image and those who are less successful often comes down to hubris. Some companies tout their post-crisis plans in a boastful way that undercuts what they’ve done and further damages their reputation – think anything that BP Oil did post-Deepwater Horizon. The NFL, which suffered reputation damage after repeated domestic violence charges against league players, has also been judged positively in the company comeback game. Its contributions to domestic violence hotlines are credited with increasing assistance to callers in D.C. one of the city’s receiving funding. And this news didn’t come from the NFL itself.
Less defensive or more thoughtful companies and their CEOs handle a setback with equanimity, and they move on to proactive measures, letting their actions speak for the brand.
The bottom line is, will your company’s negative press become a major PR problem or an unexpected PR opportunity?