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Don't Let a PR Nightmare Keep You up at Night

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

Growing up, what did you call the night before Halloween? Mischief Night? Devil's Night? Cabbage Night? Growing up in Vermont, we called it Cabbage Night. The idea is that you'd take all of the rotten vegetables in your refrigerator and go throw them at other people's houses. As a kid, it was a nightmare if your classmates egged your house because "How embarrassing!"

Speaking of nightmares, we're all adults now! Our concerns go beyond our homes getting egged. That's an easy cleanup. But when your business or personal brand is the target of mischief-makers or actual malice? That's a PR nightmare!

In today's Move the Stairs Chat, our team of strategists discussed the PR nightmares we've gone through, some recent high profile PR nightmares we've seen play out in traditional and social media, and actionable strategies businesses can take to ratchet down a nightmare to just a passing unpleasant dream.

For an in-depth look at the conversation, you'll find a link to our YouTube Channel at the bottom of this blog.

Also, be sure to check out our free downloadable one-sheet as well to create a 5 step crisis outline here.

What is a Public Relations Nightmare?

Our background at M&C Communications is broadcast television news. You could say we've been a part of a crisis or two, or two hundred or two hundred thousand, but who's counting? Between being in Manhattan during the September 11th terrorist attack, being a News Director in Denver during the Columbine High School shooting, and covering life-threatening weather scenarios, our Insider Media Relations™ experience gives our team the perspective of covering crisis that allows us to think ahead and help clients avoid a PR nightmare.

According to digital marketing company Ionos, a "PR Nightmare" is a term used within corporations and the media to describe an embarrassing event that creates a bad reputation for a person, group, or business.

Sometimes when you have a bad dream, at that moment, you think it's a nightmare. Later on in the day, you may realize it wasn't that scary to begin with, just unpleasant. Use the same mentality when evaluating a potential PR problem as well.

M&C's go-to is an example of a headache vs. a heart attack. A headache requires some attention, maybe an aspirin and a bottle of water. A heart attack requires all-hands-on-deck and a trip to the hospital.

If your brand is having a heart attack, use these 3 steps to avoid making the problem worse:

Step 1: Breathe! Take a step back and evaluate the situation

Step 2: Gather all of the facts. Understand "facts" may be preliminary as new information arises

Step 3: Be prepared to handle media inquires

Remember the M&C best practices for working with the media:

  • Find out the reporter's deadline

  • Assure them you'll get back to them within 15 minutes (or a reasonably short amount of time)

  • Make sure no one speaks to the media unless they are media trained

  • Be sure what you tell a reporter are facts or let him/her know that the information is preliminary and may change as you find out more

  • If you do not have enough facts for an interview, it's okay to release a statement instead

Dealing with negative PR

Your brand will be subject to negative PR at some point, whether it deserves it or not. It's how you respond that can make all the difference.

During the fall of 2019, my colleagues at M&C were faced with a crisis scenario for a client who had a hate group picketing in front of a local school. In fact, M&C won a national PRSA Silver Anvil for our work in mitigating the crisis. (BTW, check our Sarah's and Diane's reaction to winning the award here.)

For that particular scenario, we worked with the client leading up to the day of the planned protest and several days after the protest. While using our digital listening software to track what the group and community were talking about ahead of the planned picket, we helped the client draft messaging and goals central to an effective resolution of the crisis. The resolution: no one was hurt, the demonstrations were peaceful, and the media coverage was minimal.

Keep in mind, mitigating a potential PR crisis is something your brand should be thinking about ahead of a potential crisis. Be sure to download our 5 step crisis outline to help you organize your thoughts!

In a far more publicized PR disaster, do you remember the Thai soccer team and coaches that sought shelter in a cave from an intense storm in 2018? If so, you recall Elon Musk's exchange with a British diver too.

If not, here's a quick recap: as the team and coaches took shelter in the cave, the water level rose so quickly that it forced the group deeper and deeper into the cave. Soon, they were trapped.

While local emergency officials struggled to come up with a solution to rescue the cold and hungry team, prominent figures like Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, started suggesting solutions to bring the trapped home safely. You may recall that Elon Musk offered to bring in a mini-submarine to assist in rescue efforts. His offer was met with criticism from a British diver who worked on the rescue efforts, calling the suggestion a "PR stunt." Musk countered the rebuke with his own fiery retort, calling the diver a "pedophile." Cue the PR nightmare scary music.

As you can imagine, Tesla's PR team quickly found themselves in the middle of a PR nightmare. It wasn't the only one they found themselves in during 2018 either. Musk later apologized for his remarks but the damage was done.

Examples to help your business dealing with a PR nightmare

At M&C we have a 3-pronged approach to protect your brand and deal with negative PR.

1. Build your community by consistently communicating using the 4 C’s - Clear, Concise, Conversational, Compassionate messaging to your target audience using channels they are most likely to see or hear.

2. Remember the M&C 3 Insider Media Relations™ Strategy. Picture your best friend, you worst enemy, and your grandmother when building and delivering you messages

3. Have a Brand Protection™ plan so you aren’t starting from scratch when you realize you are in your PR nightmare. You should already know who's on your Brand Protection™ team, have messaging ready to go for social media and initial media calls that shows you know you have a problem, you're working on it, and you will distribute more information in a specific time frame.

We have talked in-depth about all these tactics in previous podcasts.

Think ahead to plan ahead

In every newsroom, there is a person planning for the future. Be ready for the 5pm news, the 10pm news, and the 5am news by thinking ahead to where the media will go with the story next.

In order to get ahead of the coverage, have the answers ready! Increase your credibility and take some of the stress out of your brand's PR nightmare through planning ahead and being ready for where the media are going next on the story. If you have the resources, assign someone to be thinking about what information you may be able to provide the following day.

Once the general facts are out, think about who else is impacted by your situation. This is called personalizing the story. The media will be looking for this angle- can you provide someone for them to interview? Are there employees, customers, or clients who can tell a personal story about how you have helped them deal with the crisis at hand? Is there someone impacted who thinks you've done the best you can given the circumstances and can tell that side of the story? This will likely be the route broadcast media takes if you can help them coordinate the stories.

Print media will be pursuing angles as well but those angles will likely be more in-depth: financial questions, leadership profiles, your standing in the industry, or adherence to 3rd party verifications.

Lastly, is there a credible third-party who can talk about your company from an objective point of view and support the case that you have done everything possible to prevent the PR nightmare you're going through and are doing everything possible to resolve the issue? Consider making that 3rd party available to move the story forward.

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