Public Relations: When Does it Become Time to Play Defense?

Defensive PR

Defensive PR rarely wins 'publicity championships'

There comes a time for many large successful companies when they start to treat public relations as a reactive and defensive process rather than a proactive and opportunistic process.  Companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. are seemingly often under the media gun these days.  Even Apple is being scrutinized more and more.  The rapid rise of social media can also quickly add fuel to the fire of negative publicity for companies.  What’s a company to do these days?  Here are three quick tips…

Stay Proactive
First, it is a mistake for companies to primarily become reactive and defensive through public relations.  It’s important to stay proactive and opportunistic.  Each negative publicity scenario has a potential positive outcome.  The problem is often that companies look at the short term.  For example, short term, a product recall can get expensive and exhaustive.  But, long term it may save your brand.  First, any large company should have a crisis communications plan in place for all potential scenarios.  Smaller companies should too but, they are less likely to be sold on spending the time and money on it.  Such a plan should layout potential negative scenarios and also highlight a potential positive outcome for each.  For example, a smartphone manufacturer should have a plan in place if their devices suddenly caught fire during recharging.  I can imagine manufacturers at this point in this post thinking how unlikely this is.  But, rarely do you find yourself within a storm of negative publicity that was an expected scenario.

Such a scenario – a device catching fire – should layout a proactive public response to the problem.  It should also cover positive “if this, then that” potential outcomes.  So, such a plan should evaluate the outcome of replacing the phones for free (something they’d likely be forced to do by the government any way) but also with a freebie for their customer’s problems.  Such a freebie could be doubling the warranty period or a free accessory.  In such a case, the manufacturer should also issue a public statement of confidence in their product.  It could be something such as “We strive every day to make the highest quality devices in the world that exceed our customer’s expectations.  If that does not happen we take it serious.  In the case of our smartphones catching fire, we’ve resolved the problem by replacing the battery with a different model in all currently shipping devices.  For any customer that needs to replace  their phone – whether they’ve experienced the problem or not – please contact your local retailer for a prompt exchange.  In addition, we have doubled the warranty period so you can rest assured that your device will work great for twice as long or we’ll stand by it again.  We will also provide you with a free phone cover of your choice to protect your device.  It’s our way of saying sorry and thank you for your continued belief in our high-quality products.”

So, acknowledge the problem – don’t lay blame elsewhere.  A company will rarely get pity from a consumer, especially if they lay blame elsewhere.  Apologize for the problem.  State what you’ve done or will do to fix the problem.  Say sorry again and offer an olive branch that is in your customer’s favor.

And, don’t forget to stay proactive with updates on the problem, even reporting later on that there have been no new issues.  Use PR and social media to proliferate how proactive you are being.

Integrity Counts More than Ever
Combining the recent and still very memorable economic crash where corporations were largely to blame – at least in the public’s eye – and the rapid rise of social media, and now integrity counts more than ever.  There is hardly a living generation that has seen a period stronger than this one when it comes to holding companies accountable.  The last time corporations were scrutinized so heavily was during the Great Depression.  This time, we have the Internet: news that travels fast via media; blogs and social media, making integrity count like no other time in history.

There are so many recent examples of companies having to do an about face for actions they thought would not be so public – and it is because the Internet today, like never before, allows consumers to be more actively involved in the brands they buy.  Public Relations, social networking and marketing today must be done with integrity.

Innovate and Boast About it
Finally, it’s important for companies to continue to out-innovate – even themselves.  Apple today is the pinnacle of this example.  They often update their products with a speed that competitors find it tough to keep up with.  Sure, customers get irked that their device is now an older model shortly after they bought it.  But, if you don’t irk your customers with a better product before theirs gets old, someone else will do it for you.  Nothing helps kindle a fire of positive publicity like innovation.  Keep at it and do a good job of tooting your own horn – leverage PR, social media and marketing in the right way to become a media darling.  Stay a media darling by being positively responsive to crisis scenarios and by doing everything with integrity in mind.