No one wants their brand connected with a tragedy. But it could happen. In fact, it does happen, a lot more than we would like. Think about these recent headlines…

A Southwest pilot and former fighter jock safely landed a flight after losing an engine and having to turn around and make an emergency stop. That incredible feat made headlines across the country and around the world. But, for days before those headlines, the only thing anyone was talking about was the woman who died after nearly being suck out of the same plane. Southwest blamed the engine manufacturer, who pointed fingers right back at the airline. Those fingers are still being pointed.

Not too many news cycles before that, a person was killed by an Uber ‘self-driving’ car. The system didn’t see the pedestrian, and the human driver did not override the computer in time.

Before that, a pedestrian bridge collapsed at a busy South Florida university, killing people and placing the construction company responsible for the “new design” on the national hot seat.

Recent school shootings have placed gun makers at the center of one of the worst political conflicts in recent American history, and this is happening at a time when some gun makers are already considering bankruptcy.

These events, all in the first few months of this year, are just a sampling of how a business can become part of a tragic headline, leaving consumers and news reporters demanding answers and accountability. So, how do you respond in that situation?

Have a Plan in Place

It is absolutely imperative to have a crisis communication plan in place before tragedy strikes. This ensures you will be thinking more clearly when the time comes to determine what to say and do, and when to say and do it. You will need to have a plan in place that allows you to communicate well and with compassion, while your business continues to operate profitably.

Take a Moment

Never, ever respond without carefully considering both your messaging and your optics. Gaffes can be very expensive and most people treat apologies very cheaply, even when they are obviously necessary. Just ask Starbucks. So, when a tragedy occurs, take a moment to think, to reflect, and to consider the ramifications of what you say next. Sometimes, that will mean not talking when you really, really want to, or even when others are saying inflammatory, horrific, and very unfair things about you.

Project Authenticity and Compassion

Business is very strategic, fast-paced, and merciless… but this can’t be what you project in times of tragedy. People want compassion and authenticity. They need to see the “human” side of the business, not the bottom line side. When a mistake is made, do your best to own it and express genuine regret, but, even more than that, project honest, authentic concern for those who have been impacted by the tragedy. For example, when that bridge collapsed, right after it happened was not the time to insist the “new design” was sound. It was time to express empathy for the families of those who lost loved ones.

Check Your Automated Programs

Ill-times social media messaging or advertising campaigns can add insult to injury when you’re working through a crisis. So, when tragedy strikes, have your team review your planned campaigns, especially the automated social media activities, and make absolutely certain nothing will pop up that would be embarrassing or damaging under the circumstances. When one of your products or services has been involved in an unfortunate incident, no one wants to ready about your latest sale or great new gadget.

In closing, the best practices in a crisis involve connecting with customers where they are, offering honest compassion, and taking the time to measure our messaging to communicate exactly what we should … and nothing more.

Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5WPR

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations. He has overseen the company's rapid growth and expansion to the Inc. 500 list, as well as provided counsel to hundreds of companies, including members of the Fortune 500, Inc. 500 and Forbes 400. His work spans global interests, corporate entities, high-profile individuals, regional business entities, government agencies and academic institutions - both on routine public relations matters and extremely sensitive issues. One of the foremost public relations experts in the U.S., Torossian is known for his aggressive, results-focused orientation, as well as his close working relationships with members of the media, influencers, decision makers, politicians and celebrities. At 5W Public Relations, Torossian's client experience has included programs for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble, Cantor Fitzgerald, IHOP, McDonald's, Evian, EDS, VeriSign, XM Radio, Seagram's, The Loews Regency, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, Marriott Hotels, Vail Resorts, Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg, the Government of Israel, and others. Referred to by The New York Post as a "publicity guru," by Fox News as a "high-powered PR CEO," by Tyra Banks as a "crisis management guru," and by CNN as "a leading PR expert," Torossian is regularly featured in and quoted by the media, including by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, The New York Times, and others. CBS National News said "Ronn Torossian knows spin," and a New York Times feature story on Torossian referred to him as "The consummate hard-driving, scrappy NY publicist." Earlier in his career, Torossian was a Vice President/Group Director for one of The InterPublic Group's (IPG) largest PR agencies, where he was responsible for significant client growth and successful client programs, including work for Clinique, Fox News Channel, DHL, Hard Rock Café and others. A resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Torossian was named to the Advertising Age "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's "40 Under 40" List, is a regular lecturer at universities and conferences, a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of numerous non-profit organizations.

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