In 2009, Richard Laermer, president of RLM Public Relations, received a concerned call from one of his clients, a small New York nonprofit with a religious affiliation. The company had come under scrutiny when a contractor who produced videos for the nonprofit was found to own an online porn company. “This person was a good friend of the chief executive officer,” says Laermer. “So the CEO decided that he would handle the reporter himself, without any guidance from a PR person.”
Laermer says he called the reporter after the interview and was told by the journalist that the CEO was a jerk and that he was now going to do a full exposé on the situation. “I’d spent the last three years cultivating relationships for this client with journalists, bloggers, and producers, and now this CEO was going to ruin it all.”
Laermer quickly called the chair of the board and worked out an immediate crisis intervention strategy to put out a companywide communication explaining the situation and telling all employees not to speak to the press or anyone outside the organization. The CEO was placed on suspended leave and an independent firm was hired to audit the books. Laermer then informed that same reporter of the actions taken, and when the story came out in a major newspaper that week, it included the steps Laermer’s client was taking to deal with the problem. “This company is donation-dependent, so the way this was initially handled could have been the end of the company,” says Laermer.
When a potential PR disaster occurs, Laermer says it’s critical to immediately stand up and say, “Let’s get to the bottom of this.” Laermer cautions that when companies delay responding — as Toyota recently did with its cars’ brake systems — or stonewall the press when there’s an obvious problem — as Tiger Woods did — the story will grow instead of going away.
Craft a Three-Part Message
And while recent news reports have shown that a quick response is essential, Dan Hartlage, a principal at Guthrie/Mayes Public Relations, believes that crafting a three-part message is also critical in any PR crisis.
“The first message needs to be an expression of sincere concern for those affected,” says Hartlage. “After that, you need to demonstrate that you are taking action to determine what happened and how it happened, and what you are going to do to get to the bottom of it.” Finally, explain what measures you’re taking to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again.
“One of my clients, a small family restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, had an incident where the African-Americans on the staff all received racial hate-mail letters at their homes,” says Hartlage. “And the letters were written in such a way that it was clear the author was likely someone who worked at the restaurant.”
After the owners of the company contacted law enforcement, they immediately met — both in a group and individually — with the employees involved to answer questions, express concern, and make it clear that they intended to find out what had happened and to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.
“While all this was going on, reporters who had anonymously received copies of the letters began to call. Hartlage’s clients promptly responded, telling reporters that they needed some time to look into the situation and promising to get back to the journalists by the next day. That evening, they also met with a well-known black community activist who had contacted them. Together, they worked out a plan for diversity training for all employees.
When the community activist was interviewed that night on the local news channel, Hartlage says he stayed neutral, stating that he had met with the owners and that they were clearly concerned about the situation. “Historically, these things can lead to picketing, activist boycotts, and ongoing news conferences,” says Hartlage, who explains that the actions his client took made it a one-day story instead.
At the beginning of every crisis, the media will ask what happened, how did it happen, and to whom? At a certain point, however, Hartlage says the story becomes not about what happened, but how it was handled. “That’s the fork in the road,” he says.
Not every small business is going to face a crisis on the magnitude of the Louisville, Kentucky, restaurant or New York nonprofit, but both examples show how unpredictable these types of problems are. You can’t plan for every scenario, but you can be prepared by knowing how you want your business to be perceived by clients and the press.
Don’t Point Fingers
Last December, a surprise storm in the small fishing town of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, brought 125 miles per hour winds that shook the town and destroyed a $14,000 wind turbine by manufacturer Helix Wind, blowing it into the bay — where the local scuba class spent the next day retrieving the unit and blogging about the situation.
“I got a call from the homeowner saying the wind turbine had failed in a storm and that she was getting bombarded by the local press for comments,” says Ian Gardner, CEO of Helix Wind in San Diego.
Gardner told the customer he would look into the details and decide on a course of action once the investigation was complete.
“Our turbines are designed to sustain winds of 80 mph,” says Gardner. “I found that the customer left the wind turbine up in conditions that were well beyond the operating specs of the technology. In addition, the customer did a self-installation on the unit, which put it out of warranty, so we had no legal obligation to replace it,” he says.
But when a Dutch Harbor radio station called Gardner directly to discuss the situation, instead of insisting that he was in the right not to replace the unit, he went on the air to explain that the company would be replacing the system at no charge and that it would supply a free monitoring system to prevent this from happening again.
As a result of Gardner’s goodwill, rapid response, and upfront style, the situation went away quickly and enhanced Helix Wind’s reputation within the community.
The goal is to maintain good customer relationships and create confidence in your products and services. While no amount of planning will keep a problem from occurring, small businesses can prevent a crisis from becoming a public disaster by addressing the issue directly and taking steps to correct the problem in a timely, efficient manner.
Karen Leland is the best-selling author of six books and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Woman’s Day, Self, and Entrepreneur magazine.