How to run a PR disaster: a beginner's guide

You know you should look away, but you just can’t. There’s truly something about a PR disaster that makes it must-see entertainment.

Whether it’s the juvenile fun of an accidentally ribald hashtag, a poorly handled recipe change, a cynical attempt to draw attention away from allegations against a pretty terrible person or strange porcine revelations about a powerful individual, nothing captures our attention like a PR implosion.

And luckily for us, for every brand-management success, there are a dozen full-blown meltdowns. God bless the internet.

Given that these days social media is the go-to forum for outrage of every variety, customer-facing companies need to be social media savvy. It’s strange then, that according to a 2013 PWC survey, around 57 percent of companies don’t even use social media as a crisis management resource. 

So what’s the deal? In a world where every man and his intern claims to be a social media expert, surely the PR aficionados and comms gurus know how to handle things when the online tide starts going a little sideways, right?

According to reputation management expert and author Gerry McCusker, that’s not even close to the truth.

McCusker says that organisations are, by their very nature, poorly positioned to deal with crises, scandals or public relations faux pas at the best of times, much less the fast-moving and unpredictable upheavals found in today’s hyper-connected and trans-platform media.

Image: Gerry McCusker, PR consultant and author of Public Relations Disasters: Talespin

To that end, McCusker’s consultancy, Engage ORM, has created a social media disaster simulation platform called The Drill that aims to replicate just these sorts of train wrecks and tutor CEOs and other leaders in what to do when the worst, from public sentiment perspective at least, happens.

“We guarantee to give you the worst day of your professional life,” he enthuses.

McCusker says that the combination of organisational hierarchy and absence of contingency planning means that when a crisis arises – whether a wave of customer service complaints, a natural disaster, brand tampering, disgruntled employees or anti-corporate activism – organisations react too slowly and, when they do react, they often do precisely the wrong thing.

The problem, he says, stems from siloed thinking.

“Organisations are just not configured to handle social media disasters,” he says.

“Most organisation have a really slow approval process and they tend to have employees organised by task capabilities.”

“What happens then is that you get people thinking ‘Oh, well we’re PR, so all we’ve got to do is prepare a media release. The social media people think ‘well, this is just a case of managing the social media channel’. This sort of thinking simply does not work in this new media environment.”

“And when they do finally come up with a plan, what is it? It’s probably a press release.”

Image: Via Twitter

McCusker says that many in PR and communications roles have slow wits and outdated strategies when it comes to responding to trans-media events.

“While some businesses have a manual on what to do in these situations, most of the time, those manuals where written twenty years ago. They’ve got a plan but, that plan is from a different age.”

“Why would you produce a two page media release?” he asks. “That’s just no longer sufficient. No-one’s interested in that, no-one is going to share it and you’re not going to be heard. And how long is it going to take you to produce it? Optimistically, five or six hours. Meanwhile there are videos [made by your critics] circulating the globe at the speed of light. I think that’s a real skill deficiency in PR.”

So what’s the solution?

“Well forget about producing a PDF,” says McCusker. “That’s not going to work. When was the last time you re-posted a ‘really interesting’ PDF? Corporations still feel good about producing this press release content, but they know it’s not really doing anything for their stakeholders.”

There’s no point trying to address these critics and especially not trying to address the issue on a channel where it’s obvious you’re going to get a kicking.

“Instead, look at the statistics around video consumption. In crisis management you need a credible spokesperson and that’s not a PR team replying to a series of aggressive tweets. It’s a video with a real person, who looks concerned and who is asserting some narrative relevance into the issue.”

“We’re trying to drag corporate communications into this way of thinking. That you need to establish this relevance. How do you do that? Know what the pressure points are for your stakeholders, and create content that’s relevant to the format.”

McCusker says that businesses often exacerbate discontent, and create problems where there are none, by subscribing to a philosophy that says any criticism of the brand needs to be addressed; that ‘being engaged’ means ‘engaging with everything’. 

Image via Knowyourmeme.com

This is not the case, he says.

“That doesn’t work and for the kind of organisations we work with – which are typically issue-rich or tough-to-love organisations,” he says.

“These businesses are already disliked, sometimes they’re hated, so some of these battles, you just can’t win.”

“Say there’s an anti-corporate activist and they’re posting about your organisation on an anti-corporate website. There’s no point in getting engaged in that conversation. There’s no point trying to address these critics and especially not trying to address the issue on a channel where it’s obvious you’re going to get a kicking.”

Worse still, McCusker says that the ‘no-win’ situation can present itself to any company, not just 'the bastards'.

“Remember, sometimes no matter what you do, you’re not going to get a break. Take Malaysian Airlines for example. If you watched them carefully [following the disappearance of flight 370], the whole thing was like crisis management by the book. The global wisdom says ‘only speak to the facts’, but what if it takes hours to establish the facts? With Malaysian Airlines, we still don’t know the facts.”

The secret, McCusker says, is being sensitive to the platform, sensitive to the issue at hand, and be attentive to what your audience is trying to tell you.

“Sometime you have to acknowledge what’s happening, but not necessarily counter what has been said. And sometimes not saying anything is a more appropriate. Identify the audience’s pain-point and speak to that. But don’t just get in there and start playing tit for tat.”

4 cautionary PR disaster tales (we love)

1. David Cameron in #PigGate

It was just a matter of time before the revelations that British politician David Cameron had done something strange and definitely not kosher with a piece of pork and a certain part of his anatomy got the remix treatment.

How did it all end? Too soon to tell, but with hashtags #Baeofpigs and #snoutrage still trending, we think there’s a couple of good weeks left in this one yet.

(Link NSFW)

2. CEO gouges prices on AIDS meds and becomes most hated man in the world overnight

Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli enraged the entire Twitterverse after raising the price of Daraprim, a drug used in the treatment of AIDs complications, from $13.50 to $750 per pill. Shkreli’s vulgar display of capitalism was only made worse by his smug TV appearances and defiant Twitter comments.

How did it all end? Turing has just announced they will now reduce the cost of the 62 year old drug, but by how much we don’t know.

Image via imgflip.com

3. Woolworth forgets…good taste.

While most of the time the unforgiving internet is willing to forgive a little shameless trendsplotation from time to time, that was not the case when Australia’s Woolworth tried to get onboard with the ANZAC celebrations. The company’s ‘Fresh in Our Memories’ campaign has become the template of what not to do around sombre public holidays.

How did it all end? The company was threatened with a $50,000 fine under the Protection of the Word Anzac Act 1920, and the company apologised.

Image via Twitter

4. Cadbury’s palm oil slip

The iconic chocolate brand caused an uproar when it was revealed they had replaced cocoa butter with vegetable fat, most notably, the highly unfashionable choice of palm oil (certain research links the use of palm oil to orangutan habitat destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.

How did it all end? Cadbury NZ MD Matthew Oldham said he was “really sorry” and we forgave him