Public Relations Strategies: Dealing With a Crisis

About.com defines a crisis as “any situation that threatens the integrity or reputation of your company, usually brought on by adverse or negative media attention.” When a business or other organization suffers a major crisis, how that crisis is handled will determine whether the result is a devastation to the organization or its elevation to hero status. Consider the following two case studies and how planning your public relations strategies ahead of time can make a big difference:

Public Relations Example 1
Jack in the Box is a fast food restaurant that began in 1951 in San Diego, California. It has now grown to over 2100 locations across the western half of the United States, including Hawaii, and is a publicly traded on NASDAQ. By all appearances it is a very successful, growing fast food chain. However, almost two decades ago, their public relations strategy resulted in a sluggish response to a deadly crisis… almost shutting them down.

In 1993, over 600 people became ill after eating a burger at Jack in the Box. It turned out that the burgers were undercooked and were contaminated with E. coli, most of the ill people were children. Four of the children died as a result. After four years of litigation and payouts totaling almost $100 million, it looked as though Jack in the Box was on its way out.

After an investigation determined the source of the problem to be their meat supplier, one would think that Jack in the Box would immediately pull the meat from their stores. Instead, they waited two days to address the issue, causing devastating public relations and financial losses. It took years for them to recover after installing a state-of-the-art food handling system.

Planning ahead for this kind of situation would have made a great deal of difference. That’s what public relations strategies are for.

Public Relations Example 2
Mel’s Diner.  In another California incident, Los Angeles was experiencing a severe draught when a large water pipe burst on Ventura Boulevard, one of LA’s busiest streets. It caused a major split in the road, rendering it unusable. Threatening the very existence of the businesses in the neighborhood was the closing of the entire area because of the flooding of the street and sidewalks. Customers had no way of getting there and most businesses had to close.

One of the businesses affected by the flood was a burger place called Mel’s Diner. While everyone else was closing up shop, Mel was busy making hamburgers and giving them away to the workers repairing the water pipe. The media had a heyday with this story and that evening tens of thousands of viewers saw the generosity of this small business owner. For the cost of a few burgers, Mel’s Diner received the kind of publicity most PR firms would love to have created. Once the repairs were complete and the road re-opened people from all over Los Angeles “flooded” to Mel’s Diner to support the model citizen.

What Will You Do as a PR Consultant?
In the event of a crisis, there are three key principles to which you much adhere if you are going to manage the crisis effectively:

  • Respond immediately – As was evident in the Jack in the Box debacle, waiting even a couple of days to respond to a crisis can have devastating financial repercussions.
  • Always be honest and forthright – If you are not, the media will be – again, with disastrous results.
  • Do not rely on lawyers to make the decisions on how to respond – They are viewing the situation from a strictly legal perspective often escalating the dilemma.

Considering the power of crowds and the degree that we’re all connected online these days, transparency is more important than ever before. Planning your public relations strategies before an incident occurs not only helps you effectively deal with any issues that may arise – it also allows you to better maintain your standing and relationship with your customers. In my book, that’s a smart move.

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