In the exciting early days of building a business the last thing any entrepreneur envisions happening is a PR nightmare. Nonetheless, you should always be prepared for one because things can happen out of your control, and you don’t want to be caught off guard.
PLAN FOR CONTINGENCIES
“A very important aspect of PR is planning for any and all contingencies, and to have a backup plan for your backup plan,” Tomi L. Wiley, a media and PR Consultant in Tennessee, tells YouInc. She recalls a situation where she was in charge of organizing a huge corporate team building retreat, but the team leading the workshops missed their flight from Australia.
Wiley had a dozen of their top brass “exhausted and wondering why they are in the middle of nowhere in a forest in Middle Tennessee.” Wiley had to think quickly. “I made several frantic phone calls and had a group of friends and co-workers bring me supplies, from Merlot to flash drives. After everyone settled in, I told them the business wanted to hear from them—company goals, morale, innovations from philanthropic endeavors to new technology for our ground teams.” While she was lucky that her strategy worked, it made clear that they needed a contingency plan for the future.
NEVER IGNORE A PR FLUB
One of the most dangerous things a company can do when facing a negative PR situation is to ignore it or, worse, to double down if they've made a mistake,” says Kirsten Clodfelter, co-founder of Rise Marketing. “Customers—and the general public—most often want to see accountability and ownership of a situation, as well as transparency regarding what steps are being taken to rectify an issue and prevent similar problems from happening again.”
On the same token, don’t make excuses, but simply set about trying to fix the problem. This usually requires solid, active listening, says Wiley. “Remember that you're human, and mistakes happen.”
PUT CUSTOMERS FIRST
Respond to social media comments with customer service in mind, Clodfelter suggests. “Be willing to recognize and take accountability for mistakes, and then work with your team to meaningfully put a plan in place that moves the entire company forward, so mistakes don't get repeated.”
Jill McKenna, Marketing and Creative manager for Bee Built, a manufacturer and retailer of sustainable beehives and beekeeping accessories once featured on the show Shark Tank, had to live through a terrible PR nightmare that helped inform her current work. “Too many companies devalue their customer and ambassador base in this way and so alienate customers by acting as if something problematic didn't happen or by ignoring it,” she says.
She co-founded a mom and pop style company, Bee Thinking, which grew faster than they were prepared to accommodate. “Bee Thinking was foreclosed upon after massive growth led to being unable to meet customer demands. “Coupled with that, we had a hive manufacturer that failed to deliver on time and on grade for the last two years. Since beekeeping is a very seasonal business, missing the peak window for sales two years in a row was ultimately untenable.”
Despite a valiant effort to do everything they could to meet every need and order, their resources ran out. People were understandably upset and nasty comments flowed on social media. McKenna did not wait around to address the situation but admitted their part.
“We all want to move forward, but simply acknowledging facts can go a long way to make customers feel heard and validated, and can aid tremendously in growth and learning for the future.”
KEEP COMMUNICATION OPEN
Communication with customers is key to overcoming a PR nightmare, says McKenna. “Remaining open and communicative means that [customers] always know their emails and inquiries will be read and answered. And, not passing these folks off to someone less than the owner lets them know that their concerns are indeed taken seriously.”
Communication should also be a priority within your team, Wiley emphasizes. “Encourage your team to ask questions and bring forth ideas of their own. Make sure everyone is on the same page: it all comes down to communication, dedication and teamwork,” Wiley says.
When the worst is over, don’t continue to lick your wounds. “It’s also important to move forward and grow.” Bee Thinking was acquired by a new company, Bee Built, and McKenna brings her difficult experiences to the company to make sure “that the growth is logical and the support meets customer needs is at our core.”
Failures can also inform future innovation. “Don't be afraid to do something differently. Things change, problems pop up, so be brave enough to be fluid and think on your feet,” Wiley says.