There is a saying that “no publicity is bad publicity”, though it is hard to remain that philosophical when you are in the middle of your very own PR crisis. It is particularly difficult in the reseller market where the issue you are dealing with is often caused by a third party – yet because of where you sit in the supply chain you are the one left shovelling mud.
It is difficult to prepare for the worst when you simply didn’t see it coming. You can be having a perfectly normal day until the phone rings and some reporter is wanting to know what you are going to do about a potentially life-threatening product fault.
The first thing to realise is that the reporter is just doing his or her job. They want information and as far as they know you are the person that has it. If this is the first time you have heard about the potential problem then do your best to buy some time. Ask if you can call back in 10 to 15 minutes while you establish the facts from your end. Try and get a clear picture of what the issue is and what information the reporter may be acting upon. It is possible that what the reporter believes the issue to be, and what it actually is, are two different things. You may be in a position to clear up any confusion between the two fairly quickly if you get a good handle on where the reporter is getting their information.
If you are lucky the problem may not exist at all. It could be an isolated product fault, a product line that isn’t actually sold in New Zealand or someone has made a genuine mistake in thinking it is a line you stock. This is not, however, something I would rely on.
The next step is to be pro-active and make sure you do call the reporter back when you say you will. If they are on deadline, not helping them is certainly not going to help you – the printed statement that you; “did not return calls” is something you should try to avoid. This is equivalent to saying “no comment” which is about as helpful as falling on a very sharp sword and probably about as fatal. No matter how genuine your “no comment” may be it always comes across as sounding like you are trying to cover something up. It is far better to say something, than absolutely nothing at all and even better if you can turn a potential negative into a positive publicity exercise.
So what do you say?
It is hard to generalise in these situations. If you are in a position to seek some expert advice then do so. Not because you are not capable of responding, but because you are dealing in a world where perception is everything and what you are saying is likely to be taken down and come back to bite you.
The simple approach is often the best. If there is indeed a problem with your product or service then admit it. Often identifying what the problem is and acknowledging that you are owning it, completely diffuses a potentially hostile interview; “Regrettably we have a problem. As far as we know this is the extent of the problem and the limit to the damage done.”
The next step is to explain what is being done to put the problem to rights; “We are instigating a product recall for those lines we believe to be faulty.” It is important that you are genuine in your desire to put things right and don’t come across as trivialising the issue. Your company is relying on you to handle this in a professional manner, not to escalate the issue further. And finally, explain what you are going to do to ensure the problem never happens again; “The manufacturer has isolated the fault and re-engineered the component to insure this never happens again.”
Unfortunately this is where too many managers stop. There is one step more and that is actually backing up what you have said and working through the consequences. Do you have enough staff trained to cover phone enquiries? Is there information on the issue on your website to assist customers and the end-user? How are you going to logistically manage the product recall, including responsibly disposing of any faulty products? Who should you communicate this to before it hits the media – far better that your staff and customers hear it from you than read about it in the morning papers.
The same steps can apply to most potential public relations crisis – be it a product, service or employment related issues.
Never say “no comment”
If you have a problem – admit it. If you don’t – clearly and simply explain why this is an issue your company can’t own.
Explain exactly what you are doing to solve the problem.
Describe the steps being taken to ensure the issue never happens again.
Follow through. Make sure you have the staff and logistics in place to deliver on what you have promised and communicate what you are doing to all of your key stakeholders.
Remain honest, straight forward and pro-active to deal with. Like mud, bad publicity sticks and when it rains from above – you don’t see it coming.