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Problem PR: a Primer

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Regardless at how much effort you put in and no matter your dedication to customer satisfaction, at some point every business will be faced with a publicity problem: too much of the wrong sort. There are, however, other ways to navigate a potential PR disaster.

Decide who has the right to speak
There should only be certain people who are authorised to make any statements or write press releases. This minimises the possibility of false rumours spreading by keeping your message to the public can be kept coherent and consistent. Ideally, the designated spokesperson (or people) will be as high-profile and senior as possible; people like knowing that executives are taking their concerns seriously. If any new information emerges, they can incorporate it into their statements, but the important thing is that they are the single point of reference and that they stay on message.

Take complaints seriously
If a customer makes a complaint, take the time to investigate whether they have a genuine grievance. If they do, apologise and do your best to resolve the situation; no ifs, no buts. If they’re entitled to a refund, don’t quibble; if a refund isn’t possible, offer a replacement product of equal or greater value. It is better to lose a little bit of money than to develop a reputation for shoddy service. One company that is an excellent example of this business philosophy is Belkin, who offer a lifetime guarantee on their routers. Having dealt with their customer service department, I’m actually more loyal to them, despite having had trouble with their products in the past.

Keep employees in the loop
The worst thing that could happen is that your employees hear about the company’s problems from an outside source. Not only will they feel insecure and resentful, but the information that they are given might not be entirely accurate. At the first sign of trouble, let your employees know what the problem is, how it is being dealt with and who is responsible for any further information. Restive employees are a problem that you don’t want to be dealing with right now.

Be upfront
If something has gone wrong, don’t try to sweep it under the carpet; that will simply make you look dishonest and shifty. Don’t assume that you can carry on regardless as though nothing has happened. ‘Fess up to what has gone wrong, provide relevant information and apologise for any customer inconvenience early. Remember that it is easier to forgive a mistake than a deliberate lie; it won’t do you any good to pretend that everything is fine.

Don’t hide the major players
It might be tempting for all the senior managers to inexplicably be “unavailable” as a crisis descends, but this can look far too much like rats deserting a sinking ship. Make sure anyone making a public statement is as senior and high profile as possible, to reassure the public that you are taking the situation seriously. Senior executives run the company, and as such, they are the ones who are ultimately accountable. Don’t let them slink off into the shadows.

Don’t try to rewrite history
It can be tempting to go on the offensive and attack detractors, which is where Stella Kilonzo went wrong. The current problem may not be solely the fault of your company, but highlighting the failings of others when you’re under the spotlight only serves to make you look petty, defensive and even more guilty. This isn’t to say that you need to roll over and accept attacks against you, but make sure that you give a balanced view and don’t get involved in a tit-for-tat war of words.

Yours is not the only megaphone
Even if you’ve managed to get a statement out that has been accepted, it’s important not to shut down communication. Take the time to respond to feedback, especially from customers. It will be better for your business in the long run if your customers feel that their concerns are being listened to and addressed. This should be a dialogue, so that customers are reassured and your company can make changes to ensure that this problem doesn’t occur again.

Gag the lawyers
If you have a legal team or advisor, the first thing they will tell you is to issue no formal statement or comment. This is all very well for minimising your liability, but does nothing for your professional reputation. It is possible to apologise to customers without opening yourself to a lawsuit. You can apologise for delays, or inconvenience caused, or simply for the fact that the customer experience has been less than exemplary. If the lawyers had their way, the only thing you’d be saying is “No comment.” Which doesn’t really do much for your public image.

Of course, all of this can be rather difficult to remember when faced with a deluge of negative feedback and uncomfortable questions about your business practices. It might therefore be best to come up with a crisis management plan, just in case something goes horribly wrong. If you already have a clear protocol outlining what needs to be done in the face of adverse publicity, the prospect of dealing with it if it ever happens will be much less daunting.

[Image by Omega Man]

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