A chain of afterschool enrichment facilities in Texas upset the neighborhoods where it operates when its vans--large logos visible--ran red lights and stop signs, sparking outrage online and in local media. The 25-person, $1 million startup "had lost parents' trust," says Vannessa Wade, a crisis PR specialist who advised the company. Because trust is the most crucial asset for a child-oriented business, this one had a life-threatening public-relations problem on its hands. Companies that have been through PR nightmares (we have withheld their names but verified their tales) learn firsthand that a fast, authentic, and transparent response is key to successfully surviving, and frequently thriving after, these sorts of troubles.
If products fail, repair and repent
When a Silicon Valley online-investment startup spammed all its customers' email contacts in 2014, it set off "an immediate uproar," says Harvey Hudes, the CEO of Caliber Corporate Advisers, which was brought in to control the damage. The problem? The design of the company's website made it hard to find the Opt Out button that would have allowed users to prevent the site from accessing their contacts. Worse still, among the spammed inboxes were those of the VCs the company was courting, says Hudes.
Hudes advised the founders to immediately deploy Twitter and the company blog to apologize. The company then redesigned the site to make the Opt Out option more obvious. The founders also contacted the VCs--"to make sure they knew we were taking the proper steps," Hudes says--as well as every other user who complained. No one quit the platform, and growth stayed on target. "The lesson is to be as open as possible," Hudes says.
Separate bad behavior from the brand
You'd never purposely do anything to jeopardize your company's reputation, but one day, you or one of your team might screw up publicly. The trick is to uncouple problematic actions from the company itself. When the CEO of a Florida-based dating site was recorded soliciting sex from an escort, the company called in Brandon Seymour, an SEO and online-reputation specialist. Seymour couldn't salvage the CEO's reputation, "but I could preserve the company's," he says.
He deployed a social media blitz to promote the company's existing and new online content, including happy client testimonials. He also says he "did some back-end SEO work to dilute the dirtiest material out there" about the CEO, especially the audio recording of him making the proposition. Eventually, Seymour was able to push the recording down to page four of the Google search results--and 90 percent of people don't go beyond page one, he says. Today, the company gets an A-minus rating from the Better Business Bureau and the CEO maintains a lower public profile than before the scandal.
Admit mistakes and remediate fast
When an employee or a division makes a mistake or bad decision, fall on your sword first and point fingers later, out of the public eye. But be very public about how you'll ensure the screwup doesn't happen again. At the afterschool company with the bad drivers, firing those employees solved the underlying problem, but the reputational damage remained until Wade advised the directors to hold after-hours open houses--three a year at each of three facilities. Guests include the media, potential investors, neighbors, and prospective customers, who tour the computer rooms, meet the staff, the founder, and the board, and ask questions. Wade also gave the staff public-speaking tips (such as avoiding legalese and jargon and using a tone of voice that shows you care). By 2013, registrations were up, and after each open house, the company gets a surge in calls from prospects.