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In an era when the customer experience is everything, it’s pretty much the definition of a full blown PR crisis when you wrongly arrest customers in your coffee shop or drag someone off your plane in full view of customers with smartphones who send the video viral.

Yes, I’m referring to recent crises at Starbucks and United Airlines — both involving unfair treatment of patrons. On April 12, Starbucks made headlines for arresting two would-be customers waiting to hold a business meeting at a Philadelphia location. And a year earlier almost to the day, United Airlines dragged a paying passenger out of his seat after the plane was overbooked.

The two cases have a lot in common — poor judgment by company employees, widespread and instant condemnation via social media and eventual financial settlements with the patrons involved. But they involve two very different PR outcomes — Starbucks got proactive in its response and weathered the PR storm relatively quickly, whereas United stumbled in responding to its debacle, which lasted for months.

The difference involves three common myths — which United learned the hard way and Starbucks seems to mostly understand — about communicating proactively in a PR crisis.

Myth #1:  You can’t communicate publicly until you’ve collected all the facts about the situation.

While it may take time for all the details to become clear, you must find ways to instantly weigh in publicly — preferably with statements of empathy, concern and dedication to solving the problem. None of those three sentiments is contingent upon having all the facts in hand, and all three establish an emotional and informational bond with your audience as a foundation for trustworthy communication moving forward.

So what exactly can you say in those early moments if you don’t have all the facts? The answer is to talk about the process. For example, I was the spokesman for a hospital that received a lot of patients on 9/11 and — rather than share patient details prematurely with the gaggle of media assembled outside the ER — we described how we’d canceled elective procedures, called in reserve staff and triaged arrival of less critical patients to other hospitals. These kinds of process statements are instant, true and helpful in the face of a quickly unfolding situation.

Myth #2:  People will calm down and emotions will cool if I don’t say anything and just let the situation blow over.

Unfortunately, it’s just the opposite. Especially in an era where everything is caught on video and sent viral on social media, the emotional shock of a PR crisis is deep and instant. That means people are already communicating en masse about the situation, sometimes unfairly or inaccurately.

Inserting yourself quickly into the conversation conveys a sense of responsibility, concern and efficacy. In addition, being part of the conversation early will help cut down on rumors and inaccuracies — especially on social media — that will otherwise fill the void.  

As I mentioned above, these early statements should convey a sense of empathy. United, for example, was mocked for an initial response loaded with “corporate speak.  Even if your goal is to share information, remember the old saying attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Myth #3:  You can’t express concern or remorse without opening yourself up to liability.

Internal conversations don’t get more interesting than the ones between spokespeople and company lawyers during a PR crisis. The PR folks make all the points we’ve been talking about so far, while attorneys are understandably wary of admitting liability, and there are valid concerns around saying “we’re sorry.  

As the Starbucks apology shows, the key is to specify the nature of that remorse, make sure your communication is centered around regret and commitment to action and ensure that any admission of formal liability is intentional. Starbucks did formally apologize and settle financially with the two African-American men who were arrested. But the broader message to the community included commitments to “make things right” after a “disheartening situation.”

And consider the extraordinary step by Starbucks — the plan to close its more than 8,000 U.S. stores for a full day of anti-bias training on May 29. This is something entirely separate from the question of formal liability in the Philadelphia case; but it does convey a significant, genuine and highly-visible commitment that the company is serious about about the issue of racial profiling.

Of course, these lessons go far beyond just retail or customer service realms, and they cut across the spectrum of PR crisis — from mild annoyance all the way to life threatening or even fatal situations. That’s because the themes embedded in proactive PR crisis messaging aren’t just about what makes the most business sense. They speak to larger dynamics of corporate responsibility and the basic foundations of respect and human nature.

Want additional guidance on how your company can best handle PR challenges that come your way? Contact Merritt Group today to learn more!

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