PR Crisis Communication: What You Know You Shouldn’t Do, But Do It Anyways

Business.com / Sales / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Here's what you shouldn't do when you have a PR crisis or piss off your customers. But you should do it anyways.

In a recently launched Starbucks campaign, baristas were encouraged to write #RaceTogether on customer cups and initiate conversations about race while preparing venti caramel frappuccinos. Social media, not surprisingly, erupted in a negative way.

Campaign critics complained that talking about a sensitive subject with a stranger over a morning cappuccino isn’t exactly appropriate. The sarcasm and disapproval went viral. 

Campaign critics complained that talking about a sensitive subject with a stranger over a morning cappuccino isn’t exactly appropriate. The sarcasm and disapproval went viral.

(Source: Geekwire)

The campaign is still dealing with criticism, and from many perspectives, the company hasn’t been adhering to best practices when it comes to crisis management. They, like the brands detailed below, did things they were told they shouldn’t do in times of crisis.

Hold your ground

Taking responsibility for a bad idea or a misstep is probably the most crucial part to crisis management. But Mark Schulz and his team of communications didn’t exactly apologize to customers. They should’ve stated that their good intentions were poorly executed and ill planned.

Instead, Schulz stood his ground telling CNN Money, "It's not going to solve racism, but I do believe it is the right thing to do at this time". Not exactly accepting fault. Many think he should have issued a formal apology letter to restore good relations with customers. According to a study from Stanford, companies who admitted to their blunders often saw higher future stock prices.

Related Article: PR Nightmares: What You Can Learn from the Biggest Blunders

Go rogue

One way to accept guilt and make matters worse during a crisis is to delete your Twitter account. Corey duBrowa, Starbucks SVP of Corporate Communication, deleted his account last week (although he is now back on) in response to feeling “personally attacked in a cascade of negativity” and getting “overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion.”

This rings the same tune as the Carnival Cruise mishap. CEO Gerry Cahill hid for three days before addressing the public after it stranded thousands of vacationers in the Gulf of Mexico. Their social accounts were nearly silent on the matter while those stranded- along with worried family members- were left in the dark (literally). “The moment [a crisis] happens, don’t wait two seconds to get the CEO out,” Chuck Mardiks, a managing director at travel PR firm MMGY Global, tells the Huffington Post. “They should have helicoptered the CEO to the situation.”

Act very slowly

If you’re on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram you know that negativity can spread like wildfire when attached to a hashtag. To prevent (or at least stall) your crisis from going viral, act quickly before it gets out of control. Instead of admitting error immediately, Schultz and employees continued awkward customer interaction until the scheduled end date. As a result, the campaign made headlines and prompted an SNL parody skit.

Related Article: How One Startup Gained 16 Million Users by Learning From Mistakes

Have a world-class meltdown

When you’re receiving criticism and condemnation about a faulty product, poor customer service or a stupid campaign idea, do not get offensive and take verbal revenge on customers. In 2013, Amy’s Baking Company was featured on Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. Ramsey got frustrated with the owners and walked away from the restaurant in the season finale. Facebook users continued to criticize the company after their TV appearance and Amy did not respond professionally whatsoever. This response almost seems like a joke, but it’s not:

The worse thing you can do is bash customers. Instinct might guide you to defend your business during bad times, but grow thick skin and learn how to swallow your pride.

(Source: Help Scout)

The worst thing you can do is bash customers. Instinct might guide you to defend your business during bad times, but grow thick skin and learn how to swallow your pride. 

Don’t respond to customers

Sometimes the public cares more about a company’s response to a crisis than the error itself. And ignoring customers (or deleting your Twitter account) isn’t the best way to regain customer trust and loyalty.

A few years ago, Sony’s PlayStation Network experienced one of the largest data breaches in history, and it took leaders over a week to notify and respond to customer outrage. If you want to really piss of customers, ignore their inquiries about your missteps. Even though customers were still going to be pissed about about the data leak, Sony added insult to injury by running from the problem instead of facing it head on. 

During times of crisis, whether it be a well-intentioned campaign gone awry, massive layoffs, or a product recall, make sure you employ crisis management best practices and avoid making matters worse. Most importantly though, don't go against your own better judgement. These big brands knew better, and should have acted on their knowledge instead of falling into the red tape and getting stuck. 

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