Don’t let your company be the next viral PR disaster

By Betsy McCloskey / Guest Column

The PR game has changed drastically in the age of viral content. In today’s world of Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, it only takes a simple quote, a 15-second video clip or a photo to create a massive PR crisis. Just one angry tirade or ill-advised comment, even behind closed doors, can have devastating consequences to a brand.

We have seen it time and time again with executives at companies like Uber and Papa John’s. The phrase, “any publicity is good publicity,” doesn’t always hold true. These types of PR issues can negatively impact sales and cause long-term damage to a company’s reputation.

In the social media age, there is no such thing as “off the record.” It should be assumed that every conversation is being recorded and could be blasted out to thousands or millions of people within seconds.

With the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, there is no room for slip-ups. Social media has brought a heightened awareness to issues that plague our society. People don’t sit idly by when a company, or a representative from a company, puts their foot in their mouth.

The negative PR implications are not just at the executive level; any undesirable interaction with the public has the potential to be a PR nightmare. In 2017, United Airlines’ stock tumbled after videos of a passenger being dragged off an overbooked plane went viral. What made it worse was the lack of a sincere apology that initially came from the CEO.

Every person within a company, from the CEO to the employees on the front lines, must understand corporate values. They must believe in them, speak to them and act on them every day. In addition, employees at all levels should be well-versed in the company’s processes, policies and systems, especially related to diversity and inclusion, leaving no question among employees on how to address sensitive situations.

In 2018, Starbucks learned this lesson first-hand when two men were arrested at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia for using the bathroom, sparking allegations of racial profiling and discrimination. The CEO not only issued an apology, but Starbucks closed all 8,000 company-owned stores for an entire afternoon to hold racial-bias training.

Companies need to be ready to take swift action when an incident occurs. People (and companies) are going to make mistakes and most customers are willing to forgive, but only if the apology is perceived to be authentic and there is an effort to turn a negative situation into positive action. An apology viewed as insincere or inadequate will go viral as quickly as the original incident.

Social media has been a learning curve for corporate America. While some companies have done a good job navigating it, others have had to learn their lesson the hard way. Pay attention and learn from the mistakes of others so your company isn’t the next viral PR disaster.

Betsy McCloskey is a partner at Plaid Swan Inc. with offices in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque. Plaid Swan is a female-owned and operated marketing communications firm.