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The topic of social media public relations never ceases to be relevant, as exemplified by developments with Patreon as I write this article:
Recently, Patreon announced changes to their fee system that would seriously affect people who give small amounts, such as $1, to those they support. Many creators on Patreon rely on a large number of those $1 payments to make ends meet. Those people lost a lot of supporters and revenue due to the announced changes, and the policy was widely criticized by both Patreon creators and people who support them using the platform. A great deal of this negative publicity occured on social media.
I wanted to include this snapshot of the ongoing conversation both because it’s recent and because it exemplifies two core concepts we’re going to talk about today: crafting an effective apology and making people feel heard. But first, we need to start at the beginning.
PR Disaster Management Begins Before the Disaster
No company is immune from PR difficulties, but the best disaster management is disaster proofing. It’s important to carefully evaluate new policies and content before they are released and to make an advanced plan about potential fallout.
Testing on real people can help with this, but I hesitate to recommend focus groups. The infamous Pepsi ad, after all, likely went through focus group testing. I think a good rule of thumb here is if you’re approaching a social or political issue, make sure to take time to understand its impact by speaking with people whom it affects.
Also, if you’re thinking about trying to directly align your product with a social cause — ehhhhh, maybe don’t. There are better ways to demonstrate your beliefs as a company, without making people feel like you’re taking advantage of their emotions to sell stuff. If your product truly is inseparable from a particular cause or belief, then that’s an exception. Just be careful, people are very good at distinguishing a true social entrepreneur from a marketing ploy. Remember that audiences don’t trust brands and businesses as much anymore.
One great way to do this is to start corporate social responsibility initiatives. Giving to charity is all well and good, but a lot of people recognize it as a tax write-off and advantageous for you. Building a bank of public goodwill takes a lot more effort these days. Sports teams and high-profile athletes often partner with charities and causes directly to demonstrate that they are using their success and fame responsibly. Instead of just donating, they create new fundraising efforts together. Many larger companies create charities and foundations themselves.
Don’t Spread Misinformation
One of the big reasons that Monsanto is in so much hot water over Roundup is their effort to hide the risks of the pesticide. They engaged in a public relations campaign to discredit scientific findings, and spread lies about their product.
So let’s stop here for a moment. If you’re creating a PR campaign in order to spread a lie, you’re doing public relations wrong. It kind of blows my mind that that needs saying.
Always, always, be truthful. Don’t just say things you’re pretty sure are true. Make sure. The absolute most severe damage you can do to yourself is to get caught in a lie. So just don’t do it. If you’ve got an uncomfortable truth to tell, and you’re worried about consumer reaction, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your course of action.
It goes without saying that you should make sure that everyone involved with press releases, interviews, and social media posts are held to high standards of truth.
Sometimes, however, a PR crisis isn’t in your control. It can be very difficult to predict a public reaction. On social media, bad publicity spreads like wildfire, and even a temporary mistake can ignite a serious problem.
You Blew Up On Social Media In a Bad Way … Now What?
According to Entreprenuer.com: “Silence or poor communication timing can cost your brand more than just customers; it can cost you your reputation and image.”
The rub here is that you need to act quickly, but you also need to tread carefully. Managing something as delicate as PR during a crisis can be very tricky, and having to do it quickly increases the chance for a mistake.
So make sure that you set out a social media disaster plan. It should start a little something like this
Item One: Immediately pause ALL regularly scheduled posts across all platforms. You may even want to pause your ad campaigns on those platforms.
Appearing to be conducting “business as usual” during a PR crisis can make you appear callous and disinterested. If a regularly scheduled post goes up before you’ve posted a response to negative reactions, people may feel ignored, and you’ll be adding fuel to the fire. So put a temporary hold on all your social media marketing until you’ve addressed the issue.
Item Two: Respond immediately, but don’t take a stance yet.
You need to assure people that they’ve been heard and that you’re looking into the problem. Silence begs speculation, and you don’t want that. You’re on the clock, now, but you can give yourself some time by telling people that their concerns are being looked into. If you can, give them a timeline of when to expect a more official response.
Item Three: Seek outside advice.
At this point, something that you felt safe posting or thought would go well has unpleasantly erupted. You need advice from people who are distanced from your company. A good disaster recovery plan should include a budget for an outside PR professional you can turn to for advice.
Item Four: Own up.
Here we go with the painful part. If you made a mistake, if something you did caused a backlash, if anything about this PR disaster is you or your company’s fault … The best crisis management strategy is to own up to it right away. And I’m not talking about a public service apology here. None of that “we’re sorry if you feel that way” or “we apologize for the misunderstanding” crap. You’ll make it worse, I promise.
Don’t equivocate. I started with the Patreon statement because it’s a good example of what to do: “We messed up. We’re sorry.” Do that.
Item Five: Take public comments.
This is another very important aspect of Patreon’s strategy that I think will work well, as long as they follow through. Once they apologized, they created a way for the people affected by the problem to respond, be heard, and make suggestions.
Item Six: Follow through, and be prepared to put up some cash.
This will be the hardest part. Once you’ve heard what people think, it’s time to decide which comments you’ll implement, which you won’t, and how your product or strategy will change in the future. Whether you’re reimbursing people or committing to changing something during development, this is going to hit the wallet. Just remember that dealing with a PR crisis the right way can actually gain you good will and industry recognition. It won’t erase the damage, but you’ll demonstrate a kind of commitment above your competitors.
Conclusion: It Will Hurt Less if It Hurts Now
The common theme here is don’t try and deflect or delay a PR crisis, especially on social media. Truth is the future of advertising. If you stand behind your decision first, only to retract that stance later, you add looking weak and hypocritical to your list of problems. So make the decision early. Was the crisis due to a mistake? If it was, consumers are likely to respect the integrity of owning up, even if they’re still angry at the mistake itself. If the crisis is due to a political or social stance you took on as a company, things are a little more complicated. But I think that PR dilemmas related to a political or social stance is a topic for an entirely different post. Here’s a look at how ESPN is tackling social media in the wake of long running controversy.
Guest Post: Ben Steele writes stuff: anecdotes, motivation, real talk about the freelance life and marketing.