Bad stuff happens. United Airlines, Wells Fargo, and Samsung- all companies with a significant interface with the public- know this all too well. And when damaging policies or management decisions gone awry have the potential to hurt sales and the brand, companies can go into crisis mode. The external communications that come out of this crisis is the piece we, as the public and customers, see. Knowing what to tell the public and when is critical. There are experts on crisis communications and public relations. I am not one.

I have, however, seen my share of companies reacting appropriately and inappropriately to internal crises. This is my perspective--as a customer or potential customer--on what companies can do right when in the middle of a PR nightmare.

Start with, "We're sorry." With no caveats or excuses attached, reflect your understanding of who needs that apology, say it sincerely, and do it fast. Don't let your first reaction be a defensive one.

Follow up with a short explanation of what went wrong and what you're doing to fix it.

And then actually make that fix.

Other tips include:

  1. Ensure that your employees are your biggest fans. I worry about employees when things go wrong in a big, public way for their companies. The majority of them have nothing to do with the issue and have no control over the response. And yet, their jobs might be at risk because of the fallout. Before, during, and after a crisis, I want to know that employees are being heard and that leaders are taking steps to keep morale high. Employees from all levels of the organization can be incredibly effective ambassadors and have greater reach via their networks and social media connections. Having someone stand up for their company to family and friends goes a long way. But they'll only do that if the company is good to them.
  2. Depending on the significance of the issue, periodic updates on your progress might be needed. In the case of United Airline's recent crisis that occurred after forcibly removing a passenger from a plane, the issue has a longer shelf-life in part because most people don't travel that often. Frequent travelers are more likely to get over the issue quickly because they will have more exposure to airline staff not behaving that way towards their customers--they understand that that instance was outside the norm. For the rest of us who only fly a couple times a year, we'll hold on to that video image for longer.
  3. Know that your customers understand the difference between a crisis that impacts them and one that doesn't. For instance, Priceline's CEO having an affair has no impact on my travel purchasing decisions, because I don't see how that lapse in judgment impacted the product. A difficult and painful experience for an employee might be embarrassing, but--unless you're selling morality--it's unlikely to damage sales long-term. In this case, a distraction in the form of a sale might be nice.
  4. Don't overreact. Monitor the situation closely but don't make drastic changes to impact your brand, pricing, relationship to customers long-term that aren't really needed. This is often the real damage done as the result of a crisis--reducing your product or service to something less risky (and often less fantastic) because of some past bumps in the road.
  5. Lastly, get over it. If you've been sincere and effective in fixing the problem, your customers will bounce back pretty quickly. There are a few crises that spark principled reactions and boycotts, but in the scheme of life and business, those are the minority. This too--like all things--will pass.
Published on: May 19, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.