Alex Singleton: How to handle a PR crisis

Tony Hayward, pictured during the Gulf of Mexico environmental disaster
Tony Hayward, pictured during the Gulf of Mexico environmental disaster
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IF you’re in business, you’ll inevitably face a crisis.

A disgruntled customer will go on a witch-hunt, calling up people associated with your business.

Perhaps they’ll rant and rave on social media. Or you might face a cash-flow crisis which a disgruntled employee leaks to the press. Yet businesses of all sizes struggle to deal with these sort of threats. For many business owners it’s immensely stressful and it’s rarely obvious what the right response should be.

Even the biggest companies, with multi-million pound PR budgets, struggle to deal with crises well. Just cast your mind to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. BP did a really thorough and committed job of cleaning up the Gulf, but it never gets credit for this. Its then boss, Tony Hayward made an off-script remark to TV cameras, saying that: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” It might have seemed like an innocent remark – indeed, he was expressing something most people in his position would feel. But his second sentence, frequently quoted alone, caused outrage.

Any situation where staff are being fired or made redundant is high risk – because there are often people who feel they have nothing to lose by throwing dirt. In January 2013, HMV held a meeting in 190 staff were made redundant. Angry messages started appearing on the company’s Twitter account. “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!! #hmvXFactorFiring,” read one. “There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand. #hmvXFactorFiring,” read anther. And then the chain’s followers were treated to this: “Just overheard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks) ask ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’.” One of the messages was retweeted 1,300 times in the first half hour.

And if big businesses struggle to manage reputational issues impeccably, you can bet that small to medium sized ones – with much small budgets, if any, for PR – frequently stumble. Earlier this month, an employee of lettings agency in Greater Manchester wrote an email to colleagues, calling a tenant a “bitch”. But he sent it not to co-workers but accidentally to the client. Early coverage of the story said that the agency “declined to comment”, which always looks bad.

Now you may think that you’re super-careful when hiring employees. But even with the most careful hiring policies, you can never know what employees will do, especially in their spare time. It’s just human nature that even the most prim and proper staff will do something out of character occasionally. And smartphones and social media makes businesses much more at risk of their employees’ behaviour in their spare time. It’s so easy for drink-fuelled moments of madness, which would once have never been recorded, to find their way into the public eye, via Twitter and newspapers. Employers inevitably get named.

Some small businesses think reputational risk is something for bigger firms, who are more in the public eye, to worry about. But actually it’s normally smaller firms that are the most vulnerable. That’s because big ones have normally invested in their profile over many years – a Google search will pull up thousands of favourable articles about large companies and their products. Small companies, however, can more easily find their search engine results infested by an insignificant problem that seems blown out of all proportion. It can dramatically hurt sales for years. This might seem like rough justice – but that’s how the internet and reputation work.

Microbusinesses in particular are particularly difficult position because they may not have the resources to employ either a dedicated staff member or agency to do their PR. But proactive PR is just something their owners need to be doing – it’s a key skill of running any business these days. Getting favourable articles on the web in advance of a crisis is an essential insurance policy that can make all the difference between a company surviving and its customers evaporating overnight.

* Alex Singleton is author of The PR Masterclass (out now from Wiley)