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Dealing with a PR Crisis? Here’s What to Do

It seems like everyday we’re reading about a new company embroiled in some type of PR crisis. Health technology company Theranos and its young CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, have been under fire for weeks over claims its “proprietary technology” is nothing more than vaporware. Gravity, a payment processing company in Seattle, has been dealing with the fallout of its CEO’s decision to raise the company’s minimum salary to $70,000. Just recently REI CEO Jim Stritzke participated in a Reddit AMA that went downhill quickly when former employees shared horror stories of company management, working conditions, and customer service.

In today’s digital age, company PR crises are amplified at a lightning fast pace. A situation can erode with a blink of an eye. When a company is under fire, what should the employees do on social media?

Different sized companies will have different policies for a PR crisis.  However and whatever their size, companies should have one. Similarly, companies should have a plan for employees on social media during a crisis. The challenge for your corporate communications team is to lay out a strategy that diffuses the situation without stifling the voices of your team members.

We know that employees can be great advocates for your business and they can be equally helpful during a crisis. The value of employee advocacy is trust and authenticity. Therefore, companies need to communicate with its employees a set of social media guidelines for a PR crisis that doesn’t stifle their voice, nor make the situation worse.

Here’s four points your team should convey to employees during a PR crisis.

The Option to Speak is Entirely Up to the Individual Employees

A PR crisis can put your team in an unnerving and awkward situation. Should individual employees stay silent or is there a way companies can better empower employees to react to situations appropriately?

Employee advocacy is a powerful resource, but it’s based on trust. People trust that employees advocating for their company are doing so under their own volition, that they truly believe what they’re saying. During a PR crisis would be the worst time to force employee “advocacy.” It would not only make the current situation worse, but it would ruin future goodwill with your customers.

Make it clear to employees that they have the option to speak freely, but also inform them of potential consequences. Many people have been fired over inappropriate tweets. Clear communication with your team will help them filter out damaging tweets, while still giving employees the freedom to speak on the company’s behalf.

Keep Your Employees Informed

During a PR crisis your employees will have more questions than the public does. Not only are their livelihoods at stake, their trust in the company will be shaken. If you hope your employees will step up and help the company during this crisis, keep them informed.

It’s important to make it known before any crisis occurs, who the key stakeholders are within the company to discuss any crisis with. If employees don’t know who to turn to for answers, they’ll feel just as lost as everyone else. Transparency is key during a crisis.

Buffer experienced a crisis when they experienced a security breach. The team is normally very transparent, and they continued this practice during the crisis by publishing 10 blog posts updating customers. By keeping their entire team informed, the entire team was able to help respond to the influx of customer support emails. Buffer was able to weather their security breach without losing their employee and customer trust by making sure everyone was kept up-to-date with the latest information.

Offer First-Hand Experience

If you have team members who are willing to speak up on behalf of the company, make sure they don’t speculate. Speculation, especially from a direct employee, will only add fuel to the fire if the information is incorrect.  

What employees can do is offer their first-hand experience. When Amazon came under attack by a New York Times article, it sent the internet into a frenzy. Shortly after the article was published, Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu published a personal note on Linkedin. He was able to refute many of the claims with his first-hand experiences.

It’s these first-hand experiences that made Ciubotariu’s post trustworthy and intriguing. He refused to comment on past claims the article made because he wasn’t present and aware of the situations. Instead, he only focused on what he knew was true.

Ciubotariu’s post was successful because he corrected the piece, point-by-point, in great detail. He’d take direct quotes from the original article and followed them up with his experience. For example, Mr. Ciubotariu took exception to this point:

"At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another's ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were note answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are "unreasonably high"."

He followed up this excerpt from the New York Times article with his experience:

"No. No one encourages this. In fact, we get immediate growth feedback for this kind of nonesense. We go into meetings and discuss stuff, just like any other company does. If we quickly come to a consensysus - awesome. We same time and get out early, and that's a great outcome. If we dont, we debate - but we debate politely and respectfully, and you are given constructive feedback to course-correct if you are rude or disrespectful. No one, I repeat, no one is encouraged to 'toil long and late'."

He then continued to follow this statement up with a lengthy rebuttal that included more specific examples:

"During my 18 months at Amazon, I've never worked a single weekend when I didn't want to. No one tell me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night. No one texts me to ask my why emails aren't answered."

Mr. Ciubotariu wasn't just blindly saying, "No, this didn't happen." He was offering very specific experiences, backed up by detailed accounts of what really happens at Amazon. People kept reading and sharing this post because his answers were genuine and clearly not from the PR team.

In fact, Nick Ciubotariu’s post and experience balanced the New York Times article so well, Jeff Bezos sent the link to the entire company. The post was read over 1.2 million times. 

Remain Respectful

It’s important that employees remain calm and respectful during a PR crisis. Crises are full of emotion and the internet can bring out the worst in people. If your employees decide to participate in the online discussion, make sure they don’t get caught up in a flame war.

No matter what the disclaimer in their Twitter bio says, comments employees make online will seem to be a reflection of the company.  By engaging in productive conversations in a respectful manner, employees can help during a PR crises. When in doubt, it’s safe to just retweet the company account.

A public relations crisis is never a fun experience. It can cause strain on everyone involved. Your employees are a huge asset during a crisis. By outlining these four steps to your team, you can help not only minimize the damage from the crisis, but you can help steer the conversation in a more productive direction.

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