One businessman whispering in another mans ear, sharing a rumor
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Six years ago Reputation Rhino bought a block of advertising on a local radio station in New York City to appear anytime throughout the day. It was a routine transaction for the online reputation management company, but one that wound up causing it to use the playbook it had for clients on its own behalf. Its ads happened to run during Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, which normally might not have been a problem, save for the fact that Limbaugh had made controversial comments about a Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke, who had been lobbying for insurance coverage for contraceptives.

A boycott against the advertisers was launched and suddenly Reputation Rhino found itself in the middle of an unanticipated PR disaster, facing a barrage of angry emails, phone calls and tweets. Reputation Rhino founder and CEO Todd William didn’t hesitate. He took to Twitter to publicly announce the company’s decision to stop advertising on Limbaugh’s show. The tweet was picked up by media across the country and Reputation Rhino received over 1,600 emails in the next 48 hours praising its decision.

Perhaps it is because Reputation Rhino is a PR company, but the company handled the situation in textbook fashion. It assessed the situation quickly, realized the impact it could have and acted quickly with an apology and an action — that is, the promise not to advertise on Limbaugh’s show again. Then there was its decision to tap Twitter which allowed them to reach out directly to a large audience. “[Twitter's] immediacy and reach allowed us to make a bold statement and turn a crisis into a tremendous PR opportunity,” William said.

It is a model that all companies that wish to guard an online reputation should follow, especially in this era of 24 hour news cycles, ubiquitous smartphones and their cameras, social media and a public that sometimes rushes to judgement.

By now we all know of a company — maybe it is yours — that has been trapped in an maelstrom of crisis and negative feedback. A recent example is Starbucks, which found itself caught up in a national debate about racism after one of its store managers called the police on two African Americans waiting for a friend. Starbucks, too, handled the incident well, with the CEO Kevin Johnson apologizing to the two men and subsequently shutting down 8,000 stores to provide employee training on this issue. Recently, Johnson reported that the incident, which had prompted calls for a boycott, has not hurt sales.

Perhaps Johnson and his team had a crisis plan prepared for the likelihood that it would need one. Perhaps they just reacted quickly and instinctively to proactively address the situation, like William did. Either way, it would behoove companies of all sizes to follow their examples and be ready to react when a crisis makes its way to their doors. Here are some tips on how to do just that.

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Before The Crisis

Before a crisis even erupts always be mindful of the power of positive press, said Bill Corbett, Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations. “This is very important if a crisis or reputation incident occurs,” he said. “When people start looking at your brand they will find more positive than negative press.” Likewise good customer relations, as devoted customers can be a brand’s strongest defenders especially in online forums, said Andrew Selepak, a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, and Director of the graduate program in social media.

It is also important to have a crisis plan in place before anything happens, Selepak said. This plan will establish who will be the point person for public communication and how the crisis will be handled across all forms of owned media.

Right After The Crisis Happens

Fight the urge to make an immediate response. Start by taking a deep breath, said Nicole Pinero, Crisis Communications and Reputation Management Specialist at Evergreen Partners

It's key to try and step back and understand the scope of the damage. “If you respond quickly, emotionally, you’re likely to get it wrong. Trends move fast. What is trending today is often forgotten tomorrow. Chances are the world does not hate your brand, it is probably just a select demographic that does. You need to figure out how far the negative reach is before crafting your response,” Pinero said.

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While The Crisis Is Underway

Acknowledge any mistakes, Selepak said. “Trying to cover up a mistake or hope it will go away is the worst thing a company can do because it will only grow and you will not be a part of the conversation.” It is important to have an attorney look at the apology and any other company statements, Pinero said. “Anything you say becomes part of the litigation record should the incident lead you into the courtroom.”

Selepak also advised companies to use owned media to explain how this issue will be fixed and if any compensation will be given to customers for the mistake. “It is not necessary to buy a paid ad to share this information,” he said. “Instead the focus should be on those who are searching for information about the company and the issue or those who are already customers.”

This also the time to analyze what may be happening to your brand, said Zachary Weiner, CEO of Emerging Insider Communications. “How does it affect your customers? Your buyers? Your investors? What is the sentiment across all of these groups? Discovering these details is akin to running an impact report,” he said. Some tools to use during this analysis might be a survey of key clients and/ or social media analysis.

News About The Incident Is Everywhere

Flood cyberspace with publicity that shows the brand in a positive light to push the negative, acording to Selepak. “Once a crisis goes online, it stays there and that information is available for any potential customers to find through a simple Google search.” While the crisis can never be erased from the Web, it can be buried beneath good publicity and company messages, he said.

The Crisis Seems To Be Winding Down

Don’t relax as you could still be in a danger zone. News of the incident has spread and you are still attracting commenters on the subject. Whatever you do, don’t get into a cyber argument with anyone, Corbett said. “This only keeps the conversation and the news going.” Also, try as much as possible to move customer complaints offline and speak with them directly. “Often when somebody is upset giving them a chance to vent their frustrations and let them know that somebody is listening goes a long way to reducing the short and long term damage,” Corbett said.

For that reason, make sure that someone from the company is available to answer any questions, Selepak said. “While it is important to acknowledge that customers are upset, their anger can often become more intense online when they are sitting in front of their computer or phone,” he said. “But giving them an opportunity to speak to an actual person over the phone or through email will often temper any anger and lead to a more calm discussion.”

It’s Over Now

Learn from your mistakes and have a plan in place in the eventuality that another reputation tarnishing issue arises. “Most companies will not handle their first crisis very well,” he said. “But most companies will face more than one crisis,” Selepak said.