It’s every organization’s worst nightmare: A controversial, perhaps embarrassing incident takes place, then hits the internet and news outlets at lightning speed. Panic sets in. What’s next? A drop in revenue? Layoffs? A complete shutdown?
The best, most recent example of a public relations nightmare took place on April 9, when a United Airlines passenger – a doctor who said he had patients to see at his destination – was forcibly dragged off an overbooked flight by security officers. A cell phone camera captured it all, and the video quickly went viral. The United CEO’s insufficient initial response, in which he claimed the passenger “defied” officers and called the violent act a “re-accommodation,” sparked a public outcry (the company later apologized profusely).
Then just a week later, there was the “Facebook Killer,” the Cleveland man who used the social network to post a video of himself murdering an elderly man. It remained live on the site for two hours, raising questions about Facebook’s content monitoring policy. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was criticized for his mediocre response: A brief statement at the company’s annual developer conference two days after the murder.
Then there’s the Trump Administration’s Sean Spicer, who claimed Syria’s Bashar Assad was worse than Adolf Hitler, leading him to make a (long-overdue) apology on air. And Pepsi, which made light of political activism in a commercial featuring Kendall Jenner that has since been taken off the air. We’ve been witnessing a parade of public gaffes and train wrecks, and the public won’t accept anything less than swift, sincere apologies that satisfy everyone.
And these days, companies don’t have the luxury of taking their time to craft the perfect response after a major goof. The pre-internet days when a company engaged in a scandal could at least wait for the evening’s newscast (or the paper to hit the stands the next morning) to make a public statement are long gone. Thanks to the instantaneous speed at which news hits our smartphone feeds, communications and PR departments face more pressure than ever.
In fact, our oversharing, online culture puts pressure on individuals to explain themselves publicly when something goes wrong, too. On social media, people tend to broadcast their entire lives (and make them look much better than they really are). When evidence of something like a bad divorce, trouble with the law or a sudden job loss appears on someone’s page, they’re likely to be bombarded by questions or unsolicited “words of encouragement” from people they haven’t seen since high school – something that can add another layer of stress to an already-crappy situation.
The good thing is, when Joe Facebook User has something less than flattering happen in his life, he has the right to go silent. Deactivate his account. Just disappear from the online world. Silence is not an option for companies, however, as they have a bottom line to worry about.
Hopefully, a credit union won’t have to explain why a member was dragged out of a branch by staff, bleeding from the head. But there have been plenty of scenarios in the credit union world that have required a public apology or explanation. Lawsuits are one example – just last week, the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center sued Bellco Credit Union for allegedly denying women mortgages because they were on maternity leave. Last year, Wright-Patt Credit Union faced a backlash after opening an account to help the family of convicted rapist Brock Turner. Even a large data breach requires quick, well-crafted member communications. And how many times have we heard about an embezzling employee that may have, in some members’ eyes, made the entire credit union look shady?
After the United incident, some PR professionals went online to share their thoughts on how companies should handle a similar nightmare. One very informative post came from Casey Boggs, who is president of the Portland, Ore.-based public relations firm LTPR and has credit unions among his clients. Another good one, although written before the United incident, was by Ireland-based PR professional and author Katie Harrington. Here are some pointers from these two pros that credit unions can keep in mind should they find themselves in a worst-case scenario:
- Be prepared. Boggs recommends developing a tailored crisis plan, building a crisis task force, identifying spokespersons for internal and external communications, and regularly simulating real-life crisis situations and practicing each task force member’s response.
- Get the timing right. Don’t give in to the knee-jerk reaction of posting to social media right after an incident occurs – instead, communicate to your board, executives, staff, members, partners and constituents first, Boggs said. He also stresses communicating “promptly, factually and often.”
- Tailor your message appropriately. If the crisis is due to a straight-up employee mistake, an apology is appropriate, while if it’s the result of an ongoing problem like a service outage, a regularly-updated explanation of what’s happening is best, Harrington said. In crafting an apology, consider Boggs’ advice: “An appropriate apology is simply taking ownership, communicating that lessons have been learned, it won’t happen again and fast action is being taken to address the issue.”
- Remind people why they should trust you. Pointing out your track record of reliability can be an effective damage control strategy, Harrington noted. As an example, she said after this year’s Best Picture mix-up at the Academy Awards, Price Waterhouse Cooper stated, “For the past 83 years, the Academy has entrusted PwC with the integrity of the awards process during the ceremony, and last night we failed the Academy.”
- Take action. A promise to do better next time only counts if you actually do better. Both Boggs and Harrington emphasized the importance of following through and making noticeable improvements as time goes on.
Even when we do our very best, we have to expect that both life and business will get messy. Instead of going into hiding when it does, take responsibility for your mistakes, promise to do better and deliver on that promise – your future self will thank you.
Natasha Chilingerian is managing editor for CU Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.