Disaster or Opportunity? How to Transform a PR Fail into a Win

Public relations (PR) disasters are trouble for any brand that runs into them. However, some brands handle them in such a way that they end up being better for it. If you can think quickly and creatively, it is possible to turn an adverse PR event into a favorable situation for your company. It’s all about addressing the issue quickly and with the correct approach to spin a negative into a positive.

Here are some strategies and examples on how to spin your PR mishap into good press.

Turn Bad PR into Good Branding

Make a Joke Out of It

This approach is only appropriate if the backlash didn’t seriously affect your customers or anyone else. If the situation is lighthearted, you can be, too. Joking will send the signal that everyone screws up and it’s best not to have an ego about it, to take things a little lighter, laugh about it, and move on. And to be honest, people love to see brands screw up - and they appreciate it even more when they own it. Of course, it's important to evaluate the perceived problem and aftermath appropriately - and from every possible perspective - before deciding to turn it (and your company) into one big joke for a few days.

Admit It and Apologize Quickly

If you’ve seriously screwed up and done something immoral such as lying, breaking policy, or putting employees or customers at risk, then it’s best to act as a decent human would and admit your mistake. Apologize as soon as possible. Even if you’re not sure of the next steps, saying sorry and admitting you did something wrong will go a long way for your reputation.

Educate Your Audience and Your Employees

If your PR disaster is all rumors and false allegations, it’s best to gear your statements toward educating your audience and if necessary, your employees. Clearing up any untruths is vital to maintaining your reputation, but it's critical to do so without appearing defensive or like you're "passing the buck. Be sure to teach your audience in a clear and concise manner that directly addresses the problem communicated in the disaster. Craft your message to use language that is easily accessible to your entire customer base. Do not be afraid to repeat the rumors to dispel them.

Pay Up

You know the saying, put your money where your mouth is. Sometimes the best apology involves a donation to those you’ve wronged or offended. If your company accidentally hurt or unknowingly wronged a specific group, seek out the best way to funnel some money into a cause that will positively affect them as well. Payment shows that group and your customer base that you were serious when you said sorry and that you didn’t mean to do wrong in the first place.

But be careful here. Simply throwing money at a problem, especially as a bigger company, can also appear disingenuous. Your monetary support should be backed by one of the other strategies discussed here, or by getting involved personally with the group or audience who has been impacted. People will appreciate your time far more than your money, although pairing the two together to right a wrong can go a long way. 

Examples of PR Problems and Solutions

Reese’s Makes a Mockery of Themselves

In 2015, Reese’s released Christmas tree chocolates. The only problem? They didn’t exactly look like trees. Some called them giant blobs and others called them even worse, unedible names. Reese’s quickly realized the backlash was spreading and instead of pulling the tree chocolates or addressing it as a serious issue, they created a campaign around it. Reese’s social media campaign #AllTreesAreBeautiful was born to put an end to the so-called tree shaming, and it ended up gaining significant traction on Twitter and other platforms. Instead of accepting the blob-shaped chocolates as a flop, they engaged with the idea, created a funny concept, and attracted even more attention. Now, years later, people are still tweeting #AllTreesAreBeautiful and laughing about Reese’s tree chocolates.

Pepsi Educates its Audience

In 1993, someone allegedly found a syringe in a can of Diet Pepsi in Washington state. The following week, more than 50 reports of can tampering were reported across the country. It turns out it was all a hoax. Ultimately, Pepsi responded by educating its audience. Both PepsiCo and the FDA were confident that the reports were unfounded, and so the company responded immediately by defending itself against the accusations.

PepsiCo produced four videos throughout the crisis to educate consumers. PepsiCo identified the false claims by showing a surveillance tape of a woman in a Colorado store putting a syringe into a can of Diet Pepsi directly behind the store clerk’s back. PepsiCo also produced a video detailing each step of the canning process to show consumers just how impossible it would be for that type of occurrence. PepsiCo also had the support of the FDA, which strengthened their statements. Diet Pepsi sales had fallen 2 percent during the crisis but recovered within just a month. This particular situation required an aggressive defense because PepsiCo knew it had done nothing wrong. If the company had been mum about the scare, the public might have thought there was some merit to the tampering hoax. The videos paired with the support of the FDA succeeded in confirming PepsiCo’s reputation as a trustworthy and safe product.

(That’s not to say Pepsi hasn’t screwed up in other ways. Who could forget the more recent Kendall Jenner commercial snafu? 

MFM Pays Up

You may not be familiar with the popular podcast My Favorite Murder, but more than a million people tune in twice a week to listen to pre-recorded episodes by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. This is precisely why the co-hosts listened when a few thousand audience members complained on social media about the launch of a new product line featuring a Native American teepee. The teepee design was meant to illustrate recreational camping, but many called it cultural appropriation.

Instead of defending their design, the hosts owned up to it, and they did so honestly. On the next episode, the co-hosts apologized, explained that they hadn’t put much thought into it, but that they completely understood the problem. The pair then donated $10,000 to the First Nations charity. Their actions relieved the two of guilt, educated audience members who didn’t realize it was out of bounds (just as the cohosts hadn’t), and helped a group in the process. It all turned out to be a genius PR move that soothed grumbling audience members.

Starbucks Does it All

You’re probably familiar with this most recent example, the Starbucks PR disaster that caught the nation’s attention. A Starbucks manager in Philadelphia ostensibly called police solely because two black men had used the restroom and sat in the restaurant and declined to buy anything, claiming they were waiting for a friend. The friend arrived, but so did the police, who then arrested the pair while the friend begged to be told what exactly was going on. Meanwhile, all of this was caught on camera.

To Twitter and the rest of the Internet, this looked like a racially charged situation. White manager calls police on black men. But on the back end, these actions followed protocol. Customers can use the bathroom; the public cannot. As far as the Starbucks’ rulebook, the manager was in line when she asked the men to purchase something or leave. The situation probably should have dissipated there, but it didn’t, and once police were involved, a PR disaster was born.

Here’s how Starbucks proceeded, eventually exceeding expectations. The quick initial reaction was to express disappointment and responsibility in ensuring these situations don’t happen in the future, but there was no apology. While some felt angry about this, the delay gave Starbucks a beat to evaluate what happened and how the company would proceed. A day later Starbucks apologized, fired the manager, and two days later announced the closing of all 8,000 company-owned stores to hold racial-bias training.

Starbucks hit all the marks in the PR disaster-relief playbook. They realized the seriousness of the situation (no making a joke out of this one), admitted wrongdoing, apologized, educated their staff on how to handle similar situations better, and they ultimately paid by not only closing their stores and losing revenue but by paying their team during the bias training. Closing all 8,000 stores on the same day also made waves because it inconvenienced customers to an extent. But with a product like coffee that is consumed each day habitually, the company didn’t see an overall loss of customers — and it signaled just how vital it is to Starbucks that employees are sensitive to these matters in the future.

Your Turn

A negative PR event may seem like a catastrophe to your business, but if you handle it swiftly and creatively, the disaster could lead to even more press — and positive press at that. We recommend you create a general PR disaster plan in advance in case of an unexpected outcome or reaction. For more marketing and public relations advice, keep current with our Free Marketing Advice blog or sign up for our monthly newsletter.

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