What to do when you are faced with a PR nightmare


Facebook was recently the centre of a major PR crisis when the Cambridge Analytica story broke on international media. The revelations about the company’s controversial data security policies were a severe blow to its public image, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars as well as a growing #DeleteFacebook movement.

The company was forced to apologize and ran adverts in several major UK and US newspapers, saying that an investigation was underway.

Even though they differ in magnitude, PR crises are not that uncommon and although we hope you don’t have to deal with a crisis like the one Facebook is managing at the moment, it is important to be prepared in case a serious incident happens at a very short notice.

To help you plan ahead we’ve compiled a list with the main actions you should take when dealing with a PR crisis.

These actions can make the difference between a complete brand meltdown and finding a silver lining in the worst-case scenario to help you successfully conduct media relations in the future.

Understanding the issue: asking the difficult questions, impact and gathering information
What the crisis is and the impact it has on your audience makes a big difference in how you respond. For instance, if there is a data breach and you own the data, you have to let your customers and then the world know. For example, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook waited more than two years before it revealed the data harvesting and did not notify the affected users when they first became aware which has now caused public distrust.

When a crisis breaks it is crucial you know the full extent of it. Get all the up-to-date information you have available to fully understand what the situation is and to respond. Gathering information can be difficult during a crisis because a lot can be happening at the same time. Information will be constantly changing and the various interpretations of the situation from the media and the public can cause a lot of confusion. 

Start by getting all the key facts and information from reliable sources. If it's a company issue that hasn't gone public, you need to get ahead of the game and get a response sorted and issued as and when needed.

However, if it's something in the public domain, you need to get information from sources you control and take the conversation offline before making a response. These could include the general media, social media, employees, customers, etc. Having this information allows you to calmly strategise and make smarter decisions. 

If you wrongly assess the situation, the decisions you make can have a detrimental impact on the company. Remember: responding with a lack of knowledge can lead to public scrutiny.

Get organised
If you aren’t organized when times are calm, you will completely lose your mind in a crisis. You'll need to get organised as you’ll be required to juggle different tasks with varying degrees of priority, along with multiple stakeholders and the media.

Make a plan and move forward in the eye of a communications storm. Create a social media plan to keep the public up to date on any information regarding the crisis. You should organise this plan with your team to decide who should lead the response and what stance the company should take.

Also, there should be a mix of internal comms and external comms in a crisis. You need the company to be on message internally to employees so that they stay on message to the wider world - this limits any further leakages or misconstrued information.

Know how to handle criticism
When managing a PR crisis, you will need to know how to handle criticism and inform the parties affected to keep calm and address the issues effectively whilst maintaining a dignified composure and keeping your tone intact. This skill can be a challenge to master but is indispensable, especially when it comes to reputation management.

Be quick!
Speed is key. It is crucial to acknowledge the crisis situation immediately and react within an appropriate time. You may not have all of the details for days or even weeks, but a prompt announcement to the public and the media can minimize speculation and rumour and puts you in control.

Be transparent  
Try to be as transparent as possible! Make sure you are communicating with the public and keeping them up to date. We’ve all seen how lies can destroy or reputably damage companies and organizations. For example, the Oxfam Haiti allegations which exposed the company for its sexual misconduct. This case presents an important lesson in PR, which is to be upfront and take responsibility for what’s happened.

A crisis can be both owned or the result of an impact from an external source. As Facebook is facing their own crisis, other companies that are linked can be affected. For example, if you are using logins from Facebook, Instagram, Google, etc to create user accounts for your site, think about how you and your data can be affected. 

Take a look at your privacy policy, cookie and personal identifiable information use and storage, and terms and conditions of use of your site. You will want to make sure that whatever default options you chose at the start are still relevant, and still align with your company’s values. Make sure the public is aware of the actions you are taking or planning to take.

Always tell the truth, never engage in cover-up, deceit, or unethical behaviour of any kind and remember that bad behaviour will always find its way to the headlines. Again, what you choose to share is critical, but it must always be the truth. You should never assume, make blanket statements, or point the finger of blame.