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Recently, I’ve seen a few women-run businesses face a PR crisis. No one likes to be criticised, especially publicly so I’d like to ensure women entrepreneurs feel equipt to handle a situation which can make us feel vulnerable, scared and angry as the reputation of our business is at stake. It has been adapted from a public relations crisis management plan normally handed out to corporates.

Every business will at one time or another experience a situation that could potentially impact its reputation, operations, and financial stability. In these fast-paced digital times, the speed at which stories and issues can unfold is phenomenal. We’ve seen the rise of citizen journalists who can take photos and videos of incidents on their mobile devices to send instantly to media organisations. Lobby groups and individuals can now report their grievances through social and traditional media more quickly and with greater intensity than ever before severely damaging businesses.

Larger organisations, political parties or public figures have media advisors on their team trained to both avoid a crisis and deal with one if it unfolds.  But as entrepreneurs, most of us don’t have the luxury of a PR or media advisor on our team to handle a crisis. We may have marketing people to look at the odd negative review or trolling on social media, but even then you need a more consistent and diligent response. (I will write about this issue soon)

The advice I’m giving here is generic. It’s not intended to fill all needs but outline options for if and when you are in the midst of a PR storm. Be aware of other issues, including legal and financial consequences, must be taken into consideration at this critical time.

What is a PR crisis?

A PR crisis is any situation threatening the reputation of your brand. There are many examples of PR crisis situations including immoral or inappropriate conduct by an employee or senior figure in your business, a disaster or accident causing harm to employees and/or members of the public. It may also be where the media or general public perceive business didn’t act in an appropriate way

1. Select a Crisis Management Response Team (CMRT)

When a situation arises which is perceived to be a PR crisis or possible crisis the first reaction should be for the business head or next in line to confirm all facts relating to the incident and select a Crisis Management Response Team (CMRT). Even if you are a solo entrepreneur, you’re going to want and need advisors, whether that be PR, legal or both.

A CMRT meeting should be held as soon as possible after you become aware of the incident and also include anyone who can provide insight into how the disaster unfolded, such as a witness or employees.

The meeting should:

  • Ensure everyone is aware of the seriousness of the situation, short and long-term consequences.
  • Establish if an external expert needs to be called in to consult on the crisis.
  • Identify who may criticise the business publicly.
  • Develop an action plan around what to say and how to inform your stakeholders, e.g. clients or customers and suppliers plus media.

2. Plan for a media onslaught

It’s vital to have a guide for handling the media. The frontline staff of a business will often have the initial contact by phone, email, social media or in person with journalists. How they handle this contact is a reflection of the business and will reflect its media coverage. Frontlines staff should:

• Treat the media at all times respectfully.
• Tell the journalist they’re not authorised to comment on behalf of the business.
• Take the journalist’s details and tell them you’ll arrange for a call back as soon as possible.
• Immediately tell the appropriate supervisor of the query.
• Avoiding giving information to the media as “off the record” or even say “no comment”. Treat any information or comment to journalists as going to be used in coverage, even if given in confidence.

All of your frontline staff should receive basic training on the points listed above even before a PR crisis because often the first you’ll hear about it will be from a journalist seeking a comment.

3. Select a media spokesperson

To maintain consistency in messaging only the company head or an authorised person (decided by the CMRT) should provide comment. Public relations advisors will decide upon the best format for each media response such as:
• Phone call/interview.
• Holding statement (see below) or press release.
• In person interview or media conference.

4. Write a holding statement

In the event of an incident attracting immediate media attention, it may be necessary to issue a holding statement before all the details are available such as:

“We confirm that (state the nature of the incident) occurred at (state place) at (state time). This incident is being investigated and dealt with at the moment by (who). We’ll issue a full statement at the earliest possible time. We appreciate your co-operation on this matter. For further media information contact (details of public relations officer).

5. Have media training before a crisis hits

When a crisis happens, there’ll be minimal time for training, so its best to ensure all potential spokespeople are given media training in your organisation. This training should include information sessions on how the media operates along with role-playing and interview practice.

A business involved in a public relations crisis must understand it will be highly emotive and the media can be relentless in their pursuit of someone to blame. It is vital everyone stays calm, works together, anticipates likely worst-case scenario interview questions and assists the spokesperson prepare answers to what could be a media onslaught.

Below is a list of possible questions you may be asked by a journalist:
• Can you tell us what happened?
• Who is to responsible for what happened?
• How long have you known about the problem?
• How could you have not known about the problem?
• Why didn’t you act earlier to prevent the situation?
• How much will this situation impact your business?
• Do you admit negligence?
• Do you admit you were at fault?
• What are you doing to help those affected?

For many of these questions, especially those that may have legal implications such as around negligence and admitting fault, public relations and legal advisors must together to determine appropriate ways for the spokesperson to answer.

To add to this post, I’ve also asked colleague Publicity Genie founder  Annette Densham for some of her tips. Annette is also a highly experienced journalist with stints across various leading media organisations, including The Australian newspaper.

Annette’s number one tip is to remember a public relations crisis can be extremely stressful.

“My biggest advice is to make sure you have emotional support because you’ll need someone you can trust and let your feelings out in confidence,” she says.

However, Annette warns about acting emotionally during the crisis.

“You don’t want a knee-jerk reaction so think through the worst-case scenarios about what they can say about you or your business then work out a response.

“You’ll feel like running and hiding or shutting up shop but don’t panic because the storm will pass.”

If you look at the news on a daily basis, you will see individual public figures political parties, companies, schools, health care providers and yes smaller businesses too dealing with a PR crisis. Unfortunately, we can’t make you immune from criticism, but help guide you to “weather the storm”.

brand-reputation-lady-on-mountain

I want you to ponder a question. Do you consider how what you say on social media, at networking or social events, on the sidelines of your children’s sporting activity or in a speech impacts on you, your brand reputation?

Everyone will have a bad day now and again, want to have a spat at someone on social media, call themselves a “bad-ass” or a “hustler”, meaning they’re successful in business. However, is this really how you want to come across in the long-term?

I work with women leaders and change-makers who have already achieved a level of success but want a more national or global reach for greater impact. My ideal clients are humble but have established leadership and are making a difference in their field. I can usually tell very quickly who I want to work with and who is a red flag.

One of the first things I do with a potential client is become a pseudo-detective. I openly stalk their social media accounts. I do a web search for their name and work to discover other facts and get an understanding of them as a person. I may talk with their friends, clients or family members. All of this information will help me mine and craft their story.

I want authenticity in their marketing to build impact. The word authentic, meaning real or genuine, has become somewhat trendy in recent years. However, If you want to be authentic, then it needs to be across the board. If you’re an entrepreneur, then there’s inevitably going to be a cross-over between your personal and business life.

You need to consider how you act will impact on your brand reputation. The resignation of former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce following an affair with his former media advisor, who is now expecting his baby, is a testament to harsh judgement the public will bestow upon inauthenticity.

Many argue the father of four’s indiscretions are part of his personal life and shouldn’t impact his work. However, Joyce held the National Party of Australia’s highest position. He publicly was against gay marriage, the Gardasil vaccine for teens to prevent cervical cancer saying it would promote “promiscuity” and was a proponent of traditional family values.

Being authentic doesn’t mean you can’t speak out on issues. By expressing your authentic self and values, you’ll attract people who resonate with your message. But don’t put on a show in public because you think it’s good for your image or on trend as incongruencies like with Joyce will show through.

If you’re going to debate someone on social media, then be respectful and stick to the issue, avoid swearing or personal attacks. Consider do you want to be known as a “bad-ass” or “hustler” now or in five years? If yes, then use the term and if no or I’m not sure then leave it out. Your brand reputation and digital footprint, what you say and do now will be around for a long time. As I tell my clients the best way to deal with a PR disaster is to avoid it in the first place.

I love getting positive feedback or a review from people who have worked with me or enjoyed reading my articles. As human beings, we all like to be praised and validated for our efforts, while it also is a positive endorsement to others who may be considering my services. In turn, I like to sing the praises and give positive reviews for people who have delivered a great product or service to me.

However, I feel strongly about giving fake reviews or testimonials. From a personal perspective, false reviews go against my values. As a PR consultant and journalist working with women entrepreneurs and leaders, false reviews can just do more harm than good.

A recent post on a Facebook group for women in business asked people to give fake reviews of each other’s websites or Facebook page. The post to date has had almost 1.5k comments and most in favour of giving each other false reviews. The popularity of that post has led to similar posts and shout-outs for fake reviews.

I was one of a small number of business women to speak up against false reviews. The reasons I included were:

1. You’re damaging your reputation and potentially causing a public relations crisis for your business if word gets out you’ve been conjuring up reviews.

2. Search engines and social media platforms can penalise you for trying to beat the system. I have studied an written an article on this topic – it forms part of what is known as “black hat tactics”.

3. Made up reviews are dishonest, unethical and a reason why people have less trust in marketing. (Research the many articles on this topic)

4. False reviews go against best practice. You may want reviews but as the old saying goes “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Do the hard work and earn reviews. In the long term, your business will benefit from the trust you’re building.

Leading social media marketing strategist Anna Kochetkova advises you should not provide or ask for false reviews.

“You eventually disregard all the real reviews businesses get, making customers trust less,” she says.

Reviews mean you’ve worked with someone and helped them – they’re incredibly precious.”

Anna says fake reviews can damage your business if any of your prospects find out and contribute towards a complete disintegration of marketing.

“People get upset when Facebook changes the algorithm, but all they’re doing is updating their business model because people abuse the system through dodgy practices like fake reviews,” she says.

“The more people do fake reviews then, the bigger a hole is being dug.”

Business coach Sonya Stattmann, who has been helping women entrepreneurs for almost two decades, says women are focusing on the wrong strategies to build their business.

“You won’t get income from Facebook reviews, especially fake ones,” she says.

“You get income by having your attention on the customer, not yourself or vanity metrics.

“You get income by offering a unique solution to someone else’s problem and by having legitimate and real conversations that turn into sales.”

Book Coach Cathryn Mora has some great tips for engaging and connecting your target audience without the need for fake reviews.

“I’ve had much better results from just being ‘social’ on social media,” Cathryn says.

“Engaging in groups, answering questions, being curious, enjoying talking to people…I no longer use my page and am considering deleting it.

“I have many more clients now that I genuinely engage with people than I ever did when I focused on how many likes my page had, pushed ‘one-way’ content out every day and gave away free resources.

Having hundreds of people like your page as a ‘favour’ hurts more than helps you anyway as Facebook essentially punishes you for low engagement by pushing you further and further down the news feed.”

Some women defending fake reviews in these posts say they’re part of “networking” or “marketing”. However, by definition networking means to interact with others to exchange information and develop professional contacts. Marketing is the action of promoting products or services. Neither should involve being unethical or fraudulent.

Public relations which is my speciality area, although I also have experience in marketing, is maintaining and protecting a person or business’s favourable public image. For this reason, I feel compelled to speak out against fake reviews.

I acknowledge building a successful business is hard. There are other ways though to engage with your target client – be creative, tell stories about your work. I’ve heard some beautiful stories of hope and inspiration from women in business. Tell how you are making your products or benefiting clients? I heard a lovely story from a woman importing jewellery to the US made by women in African villages. By selling their jewellery, she is helping raise these women’s families out of poverty. Another woman is making gorgeous shoes from her garage. Inspire and engage people – fake reviews isn’t the answer.