How to manage a PR crisis: the 12 golden rules

Apr 19, 2017
Communications Training

You may have seen the incredible footage last year of the American physician who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. He’d done nothing wrong apart from not complying with a request to vacate his seat so United staff could fly instead.

The video via ABC News is here.

It wasn’t a great look. In fact, in terms of brand damage, it was right up there with the worst. There will be far cleverer folk than me doing the maths right now, but I suspect that incident has cost the airline millions of dollars. In China, it’s been reported that one Tweet/comment was read by more than 100 million people. Do you reckon those people may think twice before booking a flight next time?

Surely the CEO has had crisis training; after all he was named PRWeek U.S. Communicator of the Year in March. Talk about irony! Anyway, if he has, I’d be asking for a refund. What he said and did in many ways compounded the issue.

You probably don’t run an airline, but one day you may also face a crisis. I suggest you apply the following learnings from such a misadventure:

  1. First and foremost, think about the public, not the company or the shareholder. Deliver an unreserved apology immediately and use human being language, not corporate nonsense.
  2. Be personal and don’t be an official corporate suit. “I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers” is impersonal and lacking in care and empathy.
  3. Never try to make excuses, redirect the attention or worse still, lie. You will be found out and there is no going back.
  4. Don’t single out anyone or anything publically. Saying the passenger was disruptive and belligerent to an audience that sees for itself what happened is nonsensical and inappropriate. Remember what the masses in social media circles are likely to say.
  5. Keep abreast of all public communication including all social media channels. It’s not like the olden days when there were only a couple of places you’d crop up – now you can be everywhere in seconds. Your communication team should all be in emergency mode and respond immediately to all comments. You’re trying to stop the fire from spreading, after all, so all hands on deck are required.
  6. Buy some time. You need to assess the facts if you were not there. Then you need to take steps to acknowledge the incident: You know there was an issue for which you wholeheartedly apologise; it simply wasn’t good enough; you’re doing everything right now to discover exactly what happened and how you can put it right for Mr X and his family.
  7. If appropriate, call a press conference so you can inform many at once rather than handle each individual question or concern.
  8. Don’t speculate. Only make comments once you know the exact details and never talk about what will be happening in the future unless it concerns the fact that something like this will never happen again on your watch.
  9. Remember what you say internally can go ‘external’ rapidly, so watch your language very carefully. An internal memo being published in the news is very common and shows you up for the kind of company you really are.
  10. Review your processes and make sure nothing like this can ever happen again. Run training exercises to see how your systems stack up.
  11. Speed is everything. You have to stay one step ahead or you never catch up.
  12. Your time in the spotlight is limited. It may well be uncomfortable but it will pass.

This whole disaster could have been avoided for the sake of a few hundred or a thousand dollars. If you’re in a very high-profile company, I suggest you look carefully at how something like this could easily happen and make sure you have provisions in place to handle it.

These days we are all looking for the ‘viral’ but believe me, nothing goes viral quicker than when something goes wrong. Apply the above and your crisis will be short-lived.

If you’re thinking about organising some crisis or media training, get in touch with Lush and allow us to turn the heat up without the whole world knowing about it.


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