The biggest news story in the spring and summer of 2010 was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition to being the biggest environmental calamity of its kind in U.S. history, it was also a major public relations disaster for the British oil giant. Its stock price tanked, its CEO resigned, and its image in America was damaged – perhaps beyond repair.
But PR nightmares aren't limited to global conglomerates.
Small businesses can fall victim to a PR crisis too. A diner can become seriously ill after eating at a family-owned restaurant. Criminal activity can skyrocket near an entrepreneur's storefront. Or a provider of business services can be sued for breach of contract. Regardless of whether the business owner is at fault, its reputation can be negatively affected by poor public relations.
So what should entrepreneurs do if they find themselves in a PR crisis?
Ronn Torrossian is the founder of New York-based PR firm 5W Public Relations. He has helped small businesses, huge corporations, and even public figures navigate their PR nightmares successfully. Torrossian has some suggestions for entrepreneurs who are suffering from calamitous public relations stemming from a particular event or set of circumstances.
Don't ignore it. Because entrepreneurs tend to be self-sufficient, they may be tempted to put their heads down, disregard the problem, and "work" their way out of it. But negative perceptions need to be addressed directly or they will continue to fester and cause damage to the business.
Craft a message. Don't wait to address the problem. Assemble a response to the crisis as soon as possible. If your company erred, explain exactly what happened and how you will handle the problem. Definitely apologize if it's appropriate to do so.
Communicate your message. Be proactive and personal in distributing your response to those affected by the problem. If your clients are angry or concerned, speak to them individually (preferably in person). If you have too many customers for this to be a practical option, at least send a letter or an email to each of them explaining your side of the story. Don't expect the news outlets who contributed to your PR disaster to spread your response. They don't have your best interests in mind.
Don't delegate. Using a mouthpiece to disseminate your message will be less effective – and may even make things worse. If you don't publicize the response yourself, it may imply that you are more interested in covering for your company instead of making this right. And you will not gain support from the public.
Be sincere and concise. How you say something is as important as what you say (if not moreso). If people believe that you are sincere, they will be much more willing to forgive you. But if you come off as rambling or stiff, your audience will be turned off and won't embrace your message (think Tiger Woods). You may want to practice your delivery and keep it smooth, speak in layman's terms, and enunciate.
In most cases, there will be fallout from a public relations crisis. But adopting these suggestions will enable you to minimize the damage and shorten the time it takes to bring things back to normalcy for your business.