Every brand should prepare for a moment when something goes wrong—with the current speed of information, bad news can spread very quickly. A recent product flop, a dissatisfied customer, an executive who unexpectedly quit, or perhaps a tweet taken out of context, any of these factors, and more, could adversely affect your organization no matter how careful your team has been. In severe cases, consequences of poor reputation can include: losing market share, the emergence of investor activists on your board, investors closing their position, and suppliers pulling out of contracts.

While you cannot always prevent these issues, what you can do is mitigate their negative impact by having a crisis plan in place ahead of time. This can help ensure that you’re not scrambling at the last minute to patch up a PR disaster and backtrack on statements that you may have made in haste.

Learn how to develop a concise plan to proactively manage your brand reputation online before it ever becomes a problem so that you can feel properly prepared should a crisis occur.

The Playbook for Potential Public Relations Disasters

To better anticipate how to respond to negative publicity, start by holding a brainstorming session with leading stakeholders, marketing, your public relations department, and a small team of your senior executives. Think about situations that could trigger a poor public reaction and how your organization should best respond if these specific scenarios became a reality.

As a starting reference, look at how other businesses have protected their brand and mitigated damages from bad publicity. For example, in 2011, Yum! Brands faced a false advertising lawsuit that alleged their Taco Bell restaurant’s seasoned beef was actually only 35% real beef.

Taco Bell was quick to respond by revealing the actual ingredients in their recipes and launched a multi-platformed PR campaign that included a public service announcement distributed through their social media outlets such as YouTube, Facebook, and others.

As a result of their quick and honest action, Taco Bell’s crisis management was well-received by their customers, helped minimize reputation damages, and reassured their customers. Here’s how people felt about the brand’s response, according to one online poll:


sentiment toward Taco bell's fake beef response

While your company may not be at risk for a crisis of this magnitude—and while you may not be able to get as much overwhelming support, depending on the issue— establishing a variety of both common and worst case scenarios can help your company better create a comprehensive and actionable plan on how your employees should respond when presented with these types of issues.

While it may be unrealistic to have a solution for every problem that can occur, you should plan for incidents of different magnitudes, such as low-level issues to high priority PR problems. Use the following checklist as an example of a step-by-step strategy for your management when presented with a crisis.

Company Checklist for Managing a Brand Reputation Crisis

Understand what happened: Although it’s important to respond and often quite easy to spread the word through social media quickly, when presented with a crisis you should first calmly collect all of the facts on exactly what happened and who is affected prior to making any public announcement. This can help ensure that you won’t be regretting a poorly planned response or deleting a damaging tweet.

Establish a simple, consistent, and clear response: Creating a unified response that involves your whole organization can better align your employees and help maintain your position on the crisis. This is important to avoid inconsistencies within your message that could damage your reputation or appear ingenuine. All public outreach should remain honest, clear, and focused on addressing the crisis as it relates to your strategy.

Create a monitoring and notification system: Understanding how the public is reacting to your response is critical in understanding how your crisis communication efforts are performing and whether or not you should be making any adjustments to your strategy. Monitor social interactions and mentions of your brand online and determine how your employees should be responding to the conversation.

Address small brushfires: You may come across negative comments, product reviews, or inaccurate information online as part of your ongoing monitoring. Reading negative feedback about your business or employees can be hurtful and incite an emotional response that can damage your reputation. While defending your brand may come naturally, to properly respond to criticism, you’ll need to be more tactful.

Employees should be trained to respond appropriately, professionally, and in a timely manner that is consistent with your branding guidelines. For example, take a look at how Verizon Wireless personally responded to this angry customer on Twitter.

While not all of negative brand chatter will constitute a crisis, even seemingly negligible comments can have a damaging impact on a brand and should be responded to appropriately.

Plan a distribution strategy for issuing an apology to your customers: Personally responding to each negative comment can work for isolated incidents, but when a scenario comes up that affects a large portion of your customers, you should plan to distribute your response in a more widespread manner.

Depending on your online positioning and the severity of the infraction, you’ll need to determine which distribution channel(s) are most relevant to your customers and where you can maximize your reach to alleviate their concerns. This could mean making an announcement through a press release, public service announcement, your social channels, or combination of these and other media outlets.

Turning a disaster into a learning opportunity with post-incident training: Mitigating the damaging aspects of a PR crisis should only be one part of your solution. You’ll need to take a retrospective look into the events that caused your crisis and develop new training protocol for your employees to better prevent a situation like this from happening again. Consider running disaster rehearsals or fire drills to make sure that your crisis management plans and employees are properly suited to accommodate these issues moving forward.

By considering how these situations could affect your organization, you will be better prepared to have an appropriate and timely response should a conflict arise.