Dousing the Flames

How to Respond Well in a Public Relations Crisis

The world of social media is a dangerous place for company reputations. Any unhappy customer could spark off a huge public relations (PR) crisis online with a single complaint post. Many companies have drawn up plans to deal with such situations. However, on several occasions, corporate responses didn’t reduce the negative voices online but instead inspired a new wave of criticism, making the situation worse. Ulan Tuya of Ulan PR Consultancy here shares some experiences and advice on how to create a good response to a PR crisis on social media.

Why is a response a must?

Well-executed PR not only involves dealing with media, but also is about building effective communication with anyone connected to the business environment of a company. Key stakeholders and supporters also need to know and express the key message and attitude of a company. In a PR crisis situation, a corporate response acts as an official conclusion, and every crisis should have a clear conclusion to bring closure to it.

‘Eight Sins’ of a bad response

To paraphrase Tolstoy: all good responses are alike; every bad response is bad in its own way. We can summarise bad responses into ‘Eight Sins’: arrogancy, non-objective, evading the subject, expanding the topic, unnecessary information, complex writing, a wrong attitude and playing tricks.

Arrogancy is fatal. You can feel the arrogancy between the lines of sentences in many bad statements in phrases such as: “The customers don’t know the correct way”; “We will take legal actions”; “We sincerely apologise for any offense that may have been caused”; “This is our dealers’ fault”, to cite just a few. The public are sensitive to arrogancy; if they feel disrespected, they will call it out. Arrogancy can be the enemy of communication.

The key elements of a good response

A good response should feature the following aspects:

  1. Focus on the issue. Don’t expand the topic or involve more stakeholders.
  2. Focus on the key message.
  3. Maintain transparency. Make clear where responsibility for the issue lies, and don’t be vague.
  4. Give a solution. Try to specify the actions you will take, something that people will believe you can really do.
  5. Be concise, with clear truth and evidence.

Response methods vary

A response can take many forms and be sent out through various channels. Not all responses need to be published on media or the official corporate website. It could be a voice message to customers from your corporate toll-free 400 number, a report to a local government department, a meeting with dealers, a short message on Weibo, and so on. The key audience will depending on the topic. Identify the key audience in each case and think about what they like, and the best way to get in touch with them. You need to make sure your target audience is getting the message.

The first step is: de-escalate. There is a Chinese proverb: “ A clever person turns great troubles into little ones, and little ones into none at all.” For example: Some customers complain online. You have two choices: first, the PR team publish a statement. Second, the post-sales team calls the customers to explain and give refunds. The former will make the issue into a public opinion issue. The latter will de-escalate it into a customer service routine. Which is more likely to attract more attention from the media? Which would you choose?

Choose the right manner

It is essential to abate the audience’s rage. Having the right manner when responding can help focus the public and media on the issue, instead of them engaging in negative sentimental expression. In many public opinion cases, the more aggressive a company behaves, the more negative comments from the public become. People always sympathise with the underdog. Compared to individual customers, a company born to make profit is the strong, and therefore ‘wicked’, side.

The right manner is soft and rational. Sometimes the team can feel wronged, angry or depressed when a PR crisis emerges. If the executives or team are emotional, it can cause problems. For example, if the internal mood isn’t handled well, it may be expressed through the PR response and be sensed by the public, which could lead to a new round of quarrels. So, before sending out a response, give it a final check to make sure no sentimental clues can be detected between the lines.

Misunderstanding by the public

With more industry segmentation, misunderstanding over a certain sector or product is common. Educating consumers on those sensitive industrial elements should be done as part of daily PR work. Regular PR work and crisis management are two sides of one coin; if you can’t educate your audience with the correct message, then they may be misled by wrong ones. Build your firewall on sunny days.

A good method is to explain an issue with data and evidence from independent sources when possible. For example, a famous coffee brand became the target of many Chinese social media posts stating that coffee causes cancer. The company posted a response one day later: simply a translation of the United States National Coffee Association’s Statement on Coffee & Prop.65 Ruling, which referred to multiple scientific and academic reports disputing that coffee could cause cancer with proof that the beverage can instead be beneficial to people’s health. This response killed all the negative discussion.

Some tips

  • Never criticise or challenge media.
  • Don’t admit any blame without evidence; don’t cover up if you are to blame.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Show evidence if you have any.
  • Effective evidence is from public resources, including data, laws and regulations, or certificates from independent resources.
  • Take a soft attitude. Don’t be aggressive.
  • Don’t take a lawyer’s letter as a threat.
  • Technical and legal language are not for communication. Use simple words.
  • Focus on the issue, provide the necessary information.
  • Don’t praise your company.
  • Don’t mention others, either industries or competitors.
  • Don’t feel wronged.
  • Don’t make jokes.
  • Don’t respond through an executive’s private social media account.

Ulan Tuya is the chief executive officer of Ulan Public Relations Consultancy. Ulan is a professional PR expert, especially on crisis management, with 20 years of experience in the field. She is also vice chair of the European Chamber’s Marketing and Communications Forum, and a career mentor with the Beijing International MBA programme at the National School of Development, Peking University.