Don’t Get “Deened” – Crisis-proof Your Brand When Things are Not Smooth as Butter
Even the most popular brands are susceptible to crumbling under the immense pressure of a crisis. The mass exodus of celebrity chef Paula Deen’s corporate sponsors following her admission that she used a racial slur is the latest example of a bad situation that can quickly take a turn for the worse. In the end, it wasn’t the continuation of Deen’s butter-loving, health-averse concoctions in the face of having Type 2 diabetes that took down the southern cooking magnate. It was her lackluster response, continued exposure and awkward interview on the “Today” show that reversed years of brand building and stardom in a matter of minutes.
Deen may still be able to regain her footing, but reputation recovery will take years – not weeks or months – if at all. Deen’s sudden downfall is instructive for other brands that are not adequately prepared to handle crises.
Everyone wants to be part of a successful brand, and the best brands employ a cadre of professionals, resources and tools to achieve their communications objectives. But too often, brands overlook the importance of having an expert crisis communicator at the ready in case a situation threatens their reputation.
We don’t know what went on behind the scenes of Paula Deen’s PR blunder, including whether her PR team advised her of the cardinal rules of crisis communication. The same goes for Men’s Wearhouse, another big brand to recently succumb to poor crisis response.
Regardless of how each crisis came to be mismanaged, all brands should be on notice. Crises can happen anytime without warning, and the first 48 minutes through 48 hours are the most critical. The decisions made in these first moments can mean the difference between a blip on the radar and a full-fledged attack on your brand.
Just as the most successful CEOs surround themselves with smart people and demand accountability, so too must a brand’s communications arm. Your public relations agency must be a strategic partner, capable of providing sage counsel and planning in good times as well as bad. Alternatively, if you can’t bear to part with your publicity horses but question their crisis chops, pre-select a crisis agency to shield your brand in its greatest moment of need – before you need it.
Virtually every PR firm promotes its “strategic” and “integrated” approach, but how can you tell which firm is best for your brand? Here are my top 10 differentiating characteristics of PR agencies that separate the winners from the losers.
1. PR Substance, not spin: Going into any crisis, you want knowledgeable, fact-based counsel that earns your trust on its merit. Avoid misleading deflection techniques and question anything that sounds too good to be true.
2. No lone wolf: Hiring a crisis spokesperson is a different tactic than hiring a crisis agency. Talking heads may look great on camera and alleviate the fears of media-shy executives, but their value and substance is temporary. The collective perspective of a crisis “team” will help you over the long term, from establishing credibility and preparing for a crisis to managing and recovering from a crisis as well as everything in between.
3. Battle-tested PR: The best PR firms are on the frontlines of crises with their clients and have the relevant, routine experience to back up their claims across many industries. Some agencies excel in various facets of PR, such as publicity, corporate communications, community relations or digital and social media, but the right PR firm is able to handle all of these needs in an integrated approach and has demonstrated the ability to manage a crisis PR situation in a moment’s notice. Don’t be the guinea pig in a crisis.
4. Long-time clients: You need to make difficult decisions quickly in a crisis, and it helps to have a firm that knows your business inside and out, which comes with time. Look for an agency that has staying power with its clients. Firms that weather the ebbs and flows of the market as well as personnel changes show their ability to manage lasting relationships with all audiences and keep the account service fresh.
5. Strategic PR counsel/high-level involvement: Make sure you know exactly who’s going to serve on your crisis account team. A firm may bring in its top brass to get your business but assign junior staff to handle your account as soon as the contract is signed. The ongoing, regular involvement of senior executives will help ensure your communications strategy is sound and they can often foresee potential issues junior and mid-level staff may not catch.
6. Third-party-backed credibility and reputation PR: One way to help determine if you’re getting straight talk or empty promises is to see what others are saying about the PR firm you want to engage. Ask for client references and case studies and follow up to make sure the PR firm is capable of handling your needs across the communications spectrum.
7. Attention to detail: Words matter, especially in a crisis. The last thing you want is a firm that doesn’t catch typos in media materials or doesn’t understand the intricacies and nuances of your business. In an RFP response or business proposal, look to see how well they’re listening to what you told them. A little extra effort can go a long way.
8. Honest, transparent communication: On a gut level, do you believe you’re being told the truth or is something amiss? Be careful of firms that appear to over-promise and under-deliver. The best firms will manage your expectations and be up-front about what can and cannot be accomplished. You also want practitioners who communicate in an honest, straightforward manner, which you’ll need in a crisis. “Yes” people may boost your ego, but they do little to solve tough problems.
9. Responsive: Crises are not scheduled. They can happen late at night or over the weekend. You need a PR team that is going to be accessible when you need them. We know the nature of the business and nothing is more important than providing the utmost in client service. This can also be gauged in how long it takes the firm to respond to your inquiry or develop a program proposal.
10. Pre-selected: It’s far easier to engage a crisis PR firm you’re already familiar with in those precious first minutes of a crisis than starting your search from scratch. Having a crisis partner pre-selected with initial scenario plans developed to mitigate your organization’s vulnerabilities will free you and your team to manage the situation from higher ground. Clear-headed, strategic responses will always win over emotionally-fueled, desperate attempts to clean up a big mess.
In preparing your brand to weather a PR crisis, pre-select a PR agency that meets your needs, understands your business and is willing and able to provide the brutally-honest counsel that will save your brand when things are not smooth as butter.