In this article we speak with reputation management expert Janine Lloyd about how to deal with an online PR crisis.

How frequently do clients approach you with online crisis and what kind of online PR crises have you dealt with in the past?

Weekly. I work with many companies who need me to advise them on either a huge crisis or situations that crop up when unhappy customers go onto social media channels to rant!

I have dealt with a wide variety of crisis such as product recalls, injuries, operational mishaps that escalate into a crisis, retrenchments, customer complaints that escalate, spokesperson mistakes, product perception issues that need to be dealt with online and many others. The biggest thing I find is that companies are not ready for the crisis when it happens and in the online space it happens in lightning speed so this makes the situation even more pressurized.

What advice would you give to a company or client who has a PR crisis, how would you advise them to deal with it?

The most important thing I advise clients to do is to get all the information first – what happened, when, to whom, how did it happen – basically to gather all the evidence about the situation. It is important that the information is accurate and unbiased. Where possible you would need camera evidence, eyewitness accounts or any independent information. Internally you will need to know what caused the crisis although sometimes at this stage this may be need further investigating.

Then you need to assess the scale of the crisis. Who does it affect? How many people? Is there a massive impact to the business? Does this have the potential to be picked up by media or influencers online? Normally you would have pre planned a matrix where you would identify where the crisis is on your matrix – high, medium or low.

Once you have identified the scale of the crisis you need to formulate messaging and a strategy for communicating with all stakeholders affected by the crisis. This includes who delivers the communication and which channels of communication you will use – would it be through personal meetings with clients, a staff meeting, letters, emails, a press release, social media responses? And you would then prepare and action all the necessary communication.

Remember that an online crisis is usually an offline one as well so just responding in social media and forgetting other ways of communicating would be a mistake. As news spreads like wildfire you can be assured your stakeholders will know about it.

The final piece of the puzzle is to monitor and evaluate as your communication unfolds, always listening and providing new information when needed.

What kinds of things should PR managers/officers avoid doing during an online PR crisis?

Don’t shoot from the hip.

Until you have all the facts on the table you will be unable to make an informed decision of how to act and respond to your stakeholders. Resist the temptation to assume you have all the facts. Make sure you double check what the actual “real” cause of the crisis is. There are many cases where the actual cause of the crisis has been misinterpreted, causing further miscommunication and a public relations nightmare. Your first priority is to find all the facts quickly, analyse them and determine what the true nature of the crisis is.

Assume people will support you.

Remember that the media and influencers support the underdogs – those who are perceived to be “injured” or deeply affected by the crisis. They will believe eyewitness and public testimony over corporate speak any day. If you did nothing wrong, state the facts, show evidence and prove honestly and openly what happened. If you were at fault, resist the temptation to cover it up or blatantly lie. But be ready for the onslaught of criticism and be prepared to admit fault where it is due. This is also where it is absolutely vital that the nanosecond you know about the crisis, get all the facts together and be prepared to tackle some of the hard to tackle issues – promptly and honestly. You will be remembered for how you react to the situation.

I didn’t see it coming.

Sometimes public relations and corporate communications professionals are the last to know about a key business decision or change that may affect the reputation of your company. It is your role to stay on top of what is happening in your organization. If you are to advise your company properly, you need to know what the likely crisis scenarios are. Usually your CEO and key decision makers will have done this. Ask them to be part of that process or at the very least have sight of the document. You also need to gather external intelligence which will inform you of an impending situation. Rumblings from customers, criticism from the industry, media queries/articles, changes to accounting systems etc., and you need to be scanning for this information 24×7.

Aggression and bullying will make it go away.

This just does not work. There is a big difference between being authoritative versus being aggressive. If you try to bully the media, blogger or person asking questions you will just be digging a bigger hole for yourself. Always remain focused on the truth and the facts of the situation. Do not use emotive bullying to get them to do what you want.  Be honest, show concern and allow for interaction with all your important audiences including the media.

How important is it to have an online crisis plan, and not just a general crisis plan?

An online crisis plan is absolutely critical for all brands and companies, even individuals especially if they are have a high profile. You need a well-documented, actionable, understood and tested response and crisis communications framework for digital channels – this includes team responsibilities; identifying risks; identifying channels of communication; a method for analyzing the scale of the crisis, as well as formal processes, escalation procedures and response guidelines.