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How would you handle a PR crisis?

My business is located in a small town. Often in small towns, news travels fast. The negative press my business is receiving due to an injury in the gym (word of mouth, one published article) has had more of an affect on business lately than I expected. Specifically, the sign up rate for the summer boot camp class I planned. How should I handle the PR crisis or what are the best ways to overcome negative press?

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Even with the the minimal detail provided, there are a lot of moving parts in the question and the situation. In any case, for a small business owner, it is as important to have a response plan in place as it is for a major corporation or event. For Michellyn, being in a small town is an added level of complexity, since what may be news in her community wouldn't make the back pages of the paper in a large city.

Remember first, the event may be news; your response is editorial in most cases. One way to counter this, especially in a smaller town where local stories are harder to come by and impressions are effecting business, is to invite someone from the paper to come visit to do a follow up story. Focus on new/expanded training and the benefits of using the equipment. If it's warranted, include changes you've made as a result of the injury. Those changes typically cannot be held against you as a legal principle. If the paper doesn't bite on that, host a community meeting in your facility to improve your business image. In a small town, those events are often newsworthy and can serve to counter a negative image that is costing you business.

You mention that you are legally protected if something did develop. This is a classic mistake of small business owners everywhere. It's probably true that a liability insurance policy can defend you from the financial consequences; however, the damage to your and your business' reputation cannot be insured. That's another reason, especially in a close or small community to make sure you stay aware of what's happening, be kind to the person who was injured, monitor the impact on the business, and manage it looking ahead in ways that reflect your commitment to protecting users from harm, real or perceived.


Hi, Michellyn,

I hope since you posted that things have hammered themselves out. I agree with Robert. This is the normal course of consideration for any crisis.

Also, I always recommend that clients put a crisis plan in place so that you don't have to think about it if it does occur, you just implement the plan.

In smaller communities it can be easier to get editorials published. I would invite the individual back to the gym and offer some free services, even a custom training on the equipment so that person can help others when they use it - make them feel part of the business. Grab a photo and put it up on the wall, social media, etc. or video of that person using/being trained on it to introduce it to your members on social media.

Again, I hope that the situation has settled down. In every situation, there is opportunity!


Michelle, from experience, address the issue "head on", as soon as possible, publicly (especially in a small town) and in any business/personal avenue possible. A suggestion on the response-
1) Acknowledged a injury happened and how, (can you ask to respond to the article? or if in the paper, in the editorial section)
2) Apologized that it happened- remember, regardless of the cause-"it happened in your shop",
3) Communicate how you are implementing procedures, process, etc to do everything you can to prevent another occurrence,
4) Keep it short, crisp, concise,
5) Do what you commit.

Honesty best policy and only you know your community. I wish you the best!

Hi Robert, thanks for the quick response. I have already reached out to the publishing company to see if I am allowed to write my own response. I want to focus on the changes we are making in the studio to prevent any further injuries. You advice is greatly appreciated.


Padraig is right. We do need to know more information about the how and why of this injury. That said, any PR crisis needs to be addressed head on, openly and honestly. In a media crisis situation, you CAN come out of it having a very good reputation and being respected. It's all in how the situation is handled. If there is a local agency or independent media relations professional in your town I would suggest turning to them for assistance. If you allow the crisis to bury you, it will. If you handle it properly, ultimately your brand and business won't suffer in the long-term. I hope this helps.

Dean and Padraig, the injuries occurred due to new equipment I brought into the studio without giving any structured training. Fortunately, no legal course of action has been taken against me and I don't think any will. If so, I am legally protected under my business. Mostly I wanted to make sure this event didn't tarnish my brand image of being a safe place in the community to come exercise and relieve stress.


Accidents happen, and the best way to deal with the fallout that follows is honesty and integrity. Explaining how and why it happened while giving a clear explanation on how such things will be prevented in the future is really all that can and should be done. Depending on where you are, you might find that the local culture means that anything beyond that could be perceived as capitalizing on misfortune.


I'm very sorry no one answered your question. I hope you received the insight you needed from another source when you needed it in the summer of 2016.

A PR crisis is often ignored or mishandled. You were assertive in trying to gain understanding and problem solve. Applause to you.

The first thing to do is both extensively but expeditiously research the problem, the crisis and out ahead of it before it hits the media or as soon as it does. Speak well, maturely, responsibly on what you know. In your question, you mentioned an injury at the gym.

Did you talk to the local media about it, reach out to them to make yourself available to be interviewed? Did you make a statement that didn't blame shift or minimize the negative impact on someone? This is where many leaders and companies get an "F" grade. They think by ignoring a problem, blame shifting or having a lawyer make some defensive statement is helpful. It's not. It escalates the conflict for the person negatively affected, sours the brand name at least temporarily and doesn't problem solve well.

After that, it's always helpful to act in an emotional intelligent manner, including showing empathy and reaching out the person who was injured, show you sincerely care about them, more than how you are negatively being affected.

Ask how they are, what happened, how you can help them in a time of need. If they are not seeing you as "a lottery ticket" you can likely mitigate negative PR and other consequences by reaching out, asking questions, letting them talk, listening well, not being defensive, showing sincere empathy and then either asking what you can do for them to help them to problem solve in a way that is meaningful to them (secret: it's not always money or solely money).

If the problem proves challenging to solve, you can invite them to mediate, a non-adversarial process out of court, which is confidential, flexible, less expensive than court and helps a lot of disputes resolve themselves to either very satisfactory or acceptable ends.

Michael Toebe
Conflict Management Care
Michael Toebe Mediation

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