How to avoid a PR crisis in five easy steps

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

If you keep quiet or try to cover up a product recall, others will most often think you have something to hide. Pic: ©iStock/Nastco
If you keep quiet or try to cover up a product recall, others will most often think you have something to hide. Pic: ©iStock/Nastco
Sticking to the truth and not shying away from comment are sound strategies when an unexpected crisis like a product recall arises, writes director of Ingredient Communications’ Richard Clarke.

Whichever part of the supply chain you’re in, you never know when a crisis is going to arise, but there’s no excuse for being unprepared.

Clients often worry about how they would manage the public relation (PR) aspects of a crisis such as a product recall – and with good reason.

Consumers are increasingly raising questions about ingredients and the media adore sensationalist stories about the impact of products on health – and thanks to today’s social media culture, everyone with a smartphone can join in the fun.

The UK’s horsemeat scandal taught us that a problem in the supply chain can cause major damage to a brand in a day.

The immediate effect of a crisis will probably hit end-product manufacturers and distributors the hardest, but ingredients producers and suppliers may also come under fire and run the risk of reputational damage.

Whichever part of the supply chain you’re in, here’s are five key steps to take in managing a PR crisis:

1.       Be prepared

We give our clients a key piece of advice: you cannot predict when a crisis is going to happen, but you can prepare for it.

Investing time and resources in planning for an emergency is ultimately more cost-effective than hiring a PR agency at the eleventh hour, when the damage is already done.

First, imagine different crises scenarios that could threaten your business. Then think about how you would react in each case.

Who would you choose as your lead spokesperson? Who should you communicate with immediately? What are the toughest questions you could be asked and what are your answers to them? How would you get the key messages through to everyone in your company?

2.       Present your side of the story

One of the most important questions companies face in a crisis is how much – if anything – to say.

Should you step into the limelight or maintain a low profile and wait for the storm to calm down?

In fact, I believe if you keep quiet, others will most often think you have something to hide. It’s better to share your side of the story and say how you intend to fix the problem.

Sooner or later, the truth will come out, but if you reveal it to the public first, and apologise if needed, you can regain control of the story.

3.       Tell the truth

Honesty is always the best policy.

Most people will forgive a mistake, but not a lie. There are many famous examples of cover-ups that caused a bigger scandal than the original mistake ever did.

4.       Keep to the facts

During a crisis, tensions may rise and it is hard to keep calm when you or your company come under fire.

In such situations, it is wiser to maintain a level tone and only provide basic factual information than it is to get involved in arguments, particularly if they are on social media.

5.       Learn from the experience

You may have heard that the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’.

Take a step back to reflect on the valuable lessons you’ve learned.  Why did the crisis happen? What could you have done to prevent it? Was there a better way to manage it?

If your company makes any improvements as a result of the crisis, it’s less likely to happen again in the future.

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