It’s a nightmare scenario that befalls even the most prestigious and well-meaning businesses: a PR crisis.
For some businesses, it’s just a bump in the road. For others, it’s the beginning of the end.
There is a fine line between low-profile customer service mishaps and a full-blown issue that affects your bottom line. If you’re wondering whether something is a PR crisis, ask yourself: Was this serious enough that it went beyond the PR or marketing team, and management and leadership needed to get involved? If so, it warrants the title.
Some leaders might still think that all press is good press. On the contrary, public relations crisis can damage your emerging brand, kill the trust you’ve built up with your existing customers, and hinder—sometimes permanently—any marketing and/or sales efforts you’ve made up to this point.
So how do you handle a business crisis—or better yet, get out ahead of one? Let’s review what a PR crisis is, how it’s affected other businesses, and how you can prevent a future crisis from affecting yours.
What is a PR crisis?
A PR crisis can take many different forms.
It could occur as a result of a mistake in some other area of the business, such as operations—failing to secure enough inventory to satisfy demand, for example.
Or, it might happen after your marketing arm threads into troubled waters—an insensitive Twitter reply to a customer complaint or an ad campaign that offends a certain population.
It might not even be directly related to your business or something your employees did, but rather a black mark on your industry or niche. Examples range from a disease outbreak that (unfairly or not) taints products from an entire region to a scandal that plagues a business with a name similar to yours.
Yes, even a case of mistaken identity can have long-lasting effects on your business.
And that last part is the most important: a PR crisis is any sort of bad publicity that affects your business’ ability to operate at peak capacity.
Chances are, if you run a quality business, you won’t have to deal with a PR crisis of considerable magnitude. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for the possibility of one, or understand the consequences of one hitting your business when you least expect it.
How can a PR crisis affect your business?
Businesses face PR crises all the time. In the past year alone, companies such as H&M, Southwest, and Facebook dealt with PR issues that threatened their sales, user base, and the trust of the people who bought from or used them.
For big corporations like these, a PR crisis isn’t fun, but it’s surmountable. They have tons of resources—in terms of money and expertise, often in the form of a third-party PR firm—to throw at a crisis until it subsides.
Other businesses often don’t have that luxury. The line between success and failure is already thin enough for most businesses that any major hit to their cash flow can be fatal.
To those on the outside, a PR crisis seems like it should be a temporary blip on the radar. But the effects can be as devastating as any natural disaster. A recent article published on Inc. detailed the various ways a business can suffer from being on the wrong end of a PR disaster—including lost sales, slowed sales, long-standing reputation issues that trail companies for years, and even closure as the result of subsequent bad reviews, scathing social media reactions, and depressed demand.
How have PR crises affected other businesses?
Public relation crises happen all the time. As marketers, we should keep our eyes and ears open for them. Not for the sake of grabbing popcorn at the sight of Public Relation scandals. But for learning the lessons. For understanding from companies in crisis. From their issues, their replies, and their approaches. Let’s examine a few recent PR crises and current public relations issues. Let’s look at public relation crisis examples and ways they actually played out for real businesses, and how it affected them from then on.
Recent company crisis 2020: Burger King
January feels like a lifetime ago. People were hanging out together. Restaurants were open. Friend gatherings happened weekly. Oh, and the world was still spinning. January 2020 was a lot about vegans. Veganuary we used to call it. Brands loved it, people loved it.
Many fast-food chains did something for vegans. Burger King joined the party too, beginning of 2020. They launched a plant-based burger in the UK. Great stuff, people thought. That was until it found that the plant-based burgers were not for vegans.
Burger King’s response came fast and to the point. They said the burgers weren’t meant for vegans, but for meat-eaters. Its purpose is to reduce meat consumption so that’s that.
Burger King’s U.K. website had a disclaimer from the start: “The Rebel Whopper is plant-based; however, it is cooked on the same broiler as our original Whopper to deliver the same unique flame-grilled taste. Due to shared cooking equipment, it may not be suitable for vegetarians.” But that didn’t stop the backlash:
Just heard on the radio… Burger King is launching a vegan burger today.
But vegans can’t eat it as it’s cooked on the same grill as all the other burgers. 🙈
— Donna Wishart – What the Redhead said (@genuineplacebo) January 6, 2020
I believe there are a few lessons to be learned from this. The first is that you can prepare for a corporate crisis, but that doesn’t mean you’ll manage to avoid it. From Burger King’s entire approach, there’s one thing certain: they were ready. They had the communication clear from the start. They were the ones to announce it’s not suitable for vegans. They had the better-for-the-world argument in their pocket. That’s great. Having it all ready, though, doesn’t mean you’re safe. It probably means you’ll be able to cut the crisis short. Avoid it altogether, not so much. That inevitably brings up the question — you spent so much time preparing for the crisis to happen. Why not change the grill to prevent it?
Second lesson is: be the first to bring up the issue. Can we take a sec to imagine what would’ve happened if they weren’t the ones to make the announcement? What if the website included no disclaimers and a vegan would’ve found out at a location. That would’ve turned into a much much bigger public relations crisis. Without a doubt. The issue of customer safety would’ve come up. The company would’ve been accused of bluntly lying. It would’ve been a major public relation scandal. If your company has a doubt that something will go wrong, be the first to say it. Mention it. Never hide it. Hiding makes things a lot worse.
Current PR crisis 2020: Aer Lingus
COVID-19 put a lot of companies under stress. Communication became difficult. Content strategies had to be adapted. Above all else, a lot of companies had to take safety measures. Aer Lingus was one company that made all the right promises. The company reassured their customers they’d respect social distancing guidelines during flights. They’d avoid overcrowding. They’d keep their clients safe. Clearly, that was not the case. On May 4th, a passenger on one of their flights tweeted a picture from the airplane. Clearly showing their statement was not respected:
.@AerLingus now say they’re reviewing its processes after these photos emerged of a packed Belfast to London flight today @NewsDeclan @taramillstv @BBCevex @BBCNewsNI @bbcnewsline pic.twitter.com/vj3G0PNS12
— Kelly Bonner (@KellyBonner) May 4, 2020
Lesson to be learned here? Don’t make promises you can’t keep. I can understand that taking such precautions on flights is difficult. There are a lot of parties involved. Control is limited. But, promises were made. Add when you make a promise in the middle of a pandemic, be ready to be held accountable. Ensure you’re able to keep it, or at least don’t make it.
— Kristine Servando (@tinssoldier) January 19, 2018
In early 2017, Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick aided his own downfall and eventual resignation as head of the company when a camera caught him arguing with an Uber driver about pricing. Reports also surfaced that Kalanick knew of a culture of sexual harassment at the company and failed to address it. Throughout the rest of the year, the company endured scandal after scandal, from claims of employees having stolen self-driving car software to its controversial “Greyball” program.
At the end of this very bad year, Uber reported a $1.1 billion loss in Q4 2017. There was talk of how Uber could self-destruct, and its rivals, such as Lyft, gained reputational ground and market share.
It took Uber bringing on a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi and making some tough decisions about overseas business to bring the company back into the black in 2018. Uber is on surer footing today, but the year-long setback it suffered may continue to affect the company’s reputation for years to come.
— Christopher S. Penn (@cspenn) October 29, 2013
A few years ago, a security breach hit the social media management tool Buffer. The result was a social media management nightmare: Their customers’ Facebook feeds started spewing spam posts, compromising Buffer’s core value.
Who would blame customers for jumping ship from Buffer forever after such a meltdown? Years later, however, the story isn’t that Buffer self-destructed after this breach, but that their response was so outstanding that people actually applauded them afterward.
For starters, Buffer took to all of their channels and issued an apology, owning up to the mistake—not passing the buck on to anyone else, even the hackers. They also wrote a blog post explaining the situation, and updated it 10 times throughout the day to ensure users had the latest information.
Today, Buffer is still going strong, despite an early-life setback that could have destroyed the company for good.
Amy’s Baking Company
Another weird scandal for Amy’s Baking Company http://t.co/tcMzBL0byx
— HuffPost Food (@HuffPostFood) May 28, 2013
This is a unique case, as few businesses are featured on Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” But as bad as Amy’s Baking Company’s appearance on that show was, it was how they handled the fallout that turned this into a true PR crisis.
After the episode aired, co-owner Amy Bouzaglo took to Facebook to defend the company. Her tactic: Type defensive rants in all caps, saying things like “I AM NOT STUPID ALL OF YOU ARE. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW GOOD FOOD.” Later, they claimed that someone hacked their account.
As we’ll discuss below, good public relations doesn’t involve insulting your customers—or even your trolls—and then pretending it wasn’t your fault. A number of other poor decisions (including chasing someone with a knife outside the restaurant) followed, further compounding the original problem.
Within a couple of years, Amy’s Baking Company closed.