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I will never forget the vice president pulling me aside and saying, “We need to talk.” As I listened to his concerns, I kept raising my objections and saying, “But that’s not us, that is some other company with a similar name.”

Early in my consulting career, I faced a potential PR disaster that taught me some lessons I will never forget. A client confused my company, Sterling Consulting Group, with another consulting company that also had the name “Sterling” in its title. Although our names were not exactly the same, they were close enough. The problem was that the other Sterling was being investigated for defrauding its clients — yikes.

I will never forget the vice president of the North American division coming into a meeting I was leading, pulling me aside, and saying, “We need to talk.” As I listened to his concerns over the pending fallout from the situation, I kept raising my objections and saying, “But that’s not us, that is some other company with a similar name.” Despite my protestations, my client was not convinced.

Within the span of a few days, our relationship with this client went from a smooth-sailing ship to a constant barrage of inquires. To say our work with them was becoming unproductive would be an understatement. Still, up until this point, all my business partner Keith and I did was say, “Well, that’s not us.”

Then we got it. We got what Toyota missed for the first few months of their crisis, what Tiger Woods seemed to be unaware of, and what John Edwards didn’t want to address. We got that simply saying something that seems sufficient to you, but does not address the concerns of the public or your client, is not a productive way to handle a crisis. Certain statements must be made and actions taken to show those watching that you take the situation seriously.

Finally understanding that, we got into gear. We contacted the reporter who first wrote the story to request a letter stating that we were not the company he was investigating, got copies of all our past corporate records, and basically proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were an upstanding company, not to be confused with the similarly named nefarious organization being investigated. Once we took these actions, the problem cleared up within a few days, and it was back to business as usual.

There is a lesson in recent PR events that all entrepreneurial web workers — be they freelancers, small business owners or corporate types — can take to heart. That lesson is that when a PR problem occurs, and it will, there is a right way to handle it productively. Here, then, are a few expert opinions on what to do (and not do) to prevent a PR disaster:

Prepare in advance. “Make it a regular part of your staff meetings to figure out what could go wrong,” says crisis expert Jonathan Bernstein.“Craft plans at those sessions that address the operational and communication side of the equation.”

Develop messages that answer anticipated questions. “To be confident and gain credibility, answer questions with a straightforward “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” followed immediately with “and here is why,” says PR consultant David Sheon. “State your message, state it again and state it a third time.”

Don’t just say, “I’m sorry,” apologize. If you are in the wrong, communications strategist Jason Mudd of AXIA suggests using this Apology Model he crafted for his clients.

  • Confess. State what you did. Own up to it. Be clear and candid. Give enough details.
  • Apologize. Say, “I apologize” — not just I’m sorry — for whatever it is you did.
  • Rectify. How will you make the current situation better? What are the short-term/reactive measures?
  • Prevention/Reformation. What are the long-term/preemptive steps that will assure this doesn’t happen again — ever?
  • Seek forgiveness. This is important. Don’t forget to ask for forgiveness from your employees, shareholders, customers, community and other stakeholders and those impacted.

While we would all like to believe that PR crises are the purview of large public companies, anyone that has been in business for themselves knows that’s just not the case. By preparing, planning and executing a well-developed crisis strategy, you can productively handle any PR debacle that may find its way to your doorstep.

What steps do you take when a PR crisis hits?

By Karen Leland

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  1. Lesson learned: You are guilty until you prove you are innocent. Sad times, indeed.

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  2. Also just being transparent with your community and users, and always open to feedback/criticism helps when you screw up, because it happens.

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  3. brilliant piece. remember, truth is the ultimate spin. Four buckets in all of communications, especially crisis and reputation communications: 1. Story (tell your story, change the world); 2. Audience(s), and you’ve got more than you think on first glance; 3. Telling the Story (storytelling) – He/She who tells the best story wins; 4. Feedback – is your story being heard in the same way you’re telling it? great to see another story/communications evangelist. best, rv

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  4. [...] Leland put together a few simple steps to handling a PR crisis on her blog, which Woods’ PR team may have had better luck following. How do you think Woods and his PR [...]

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