Now that information spreads around the world at the speed of light, public relations nightmares seem to occur almost daily in the lives of company leaders, politicians, institutions, influencers and other celebrities (think: the University of Missouri, Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, Chipotle, Harvey Weinstein, Fox News…the list goes on and on).
In reality, for anyone in the public eye with a reputation to protect, bad press never gets any easier to fix. Every PR mishap is a unique crisis posing multiple dangers for those involved — so much so that emergency damage control has become a thriving industry.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this week (or supporting Rose McGowan by boycotting Twitter), you’ve no doubt caught wind of the nightmare Kevin Spacey has created for himself in the wake of recent sexual assault allegations by Anthony Rapp, a former colleague of his. Rapp alleges that the “House of Cards” star made unwanted sexual advances toward him after a party at Spacey’s Manhattan apartment in 1986 when Spacey was 26 and Rapp was just 14.
Spacey’s employer, Netflix, took stunningly swift action by suspending production of the hit show indefinitely and indicating that the beloved series may even not see a finale. Was the company’s surprising decision all that hasty, or is there is a method behind the madness?
Clear and present consequences
In his quasi-apology, Spacey danced around culpability, glossing over the accusation by saying he was drunk and didn’t remember it. He tried to deflect the gravity of the situation by coming out as homosexual after many years of speculation about his sexual orientation in the media, but he was unable to shift the spotlight away from the egregious claims.
Within 24 hours, Spacey’s “House of Cards” had collapsed. Tuesday afternoon, the video-streaming colossus issued a statement saying it was canceling the series entirely. Few businesses operate under the global notoriety of Netflix but founders, owners and leaders of smaller startups can learn a lot from the way the company handled this situation.
Major public companies and figures handle PR crises in different ways. United Airlines, for instance, issued a “sorry not sorry” type of public apology after forcibly removing a passenger from an overbooked flight earlier this year. The company’s official statement neither accepted responsibility nor conveyed empathy: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.…We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
Following the leak of his 2005 conversation with Billy Bush, Donald Trump’s approach involved deflecting negative attention onto his opponents during the last month of his presidential campaign last year. In the now-infamous tape, Trump made politically incorrect comments about how he views women. His response to the outcry? “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize. Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary (Clinton) has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimated his victims.”
That was a cringe-worthy tactic, perhaps, but apparently effective. For most company leaders, however, the Netflix approach of quickly assessing the situation and then acting in the best interest of your customers is a better option. Even if you’re not running a billion-dollar entertainment behemoth, you can emulate Netflix’s response to its current PR crisis to protect the brand you’ve worked so hard to build.
1. Know your own morals and values — and stick to them.
Who are you and what do you stand for? Every word you write, every statement you make — really, everything you do or say — should align with your company’s core values. If someone in your organization does something to the contrary, it’s time to say goodbye.
At my company, Hawke Media, the recent actions of one employee who was otherwise in good standing contradicted everything we stand for. Within one hour of finding out what had happened, we sent him packing. If anything compromises your brand reputation, run — don’t walk — to create distance and remove it from your sphere of publicity.
Netflix realized that, no matter how popular “House of Cards” is, if it kept running, the company risked throwing its core value of integrity into question and offending its customer base. If Netflix canceled the show, it risked offending…Kevin Spacey. Pretty easy decision: Maintain your hard-won brand, culture and image, or retain a superstar?
2. Don’t outright admit wrongdoing.
This advice can’t be applied universally, but sometimes you’ve got to get out in front of big mistakes. Occasionally, you or someone on your staff might do something downright stupid, a la Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner commercial debacle.
No matter who you’re trying to save face with — customers, the media or competitors — if people smell blood in the water, they’ll be all over it. If possible, avoid the words, “We’re sorry” unless such an admission is absolutely necessary.
Note how Netflix didn’t apologize for the actions of one person because the company knew nothing about the alleged incident. Spacey is a great actor; the only thing Netflix is guilty of is casting him in a lead role. Why paint any element of the company or its decisions in a negative light? Instead, Netflix’s leaders took action and made its customer base aware of that action.
3. Acknowledge the fail, move on and commit to doing better.
Whatever route you take to regain control of the narrative, don’t harp on it or hang around trying to fix whatever’s happened. Once you sufficiently address the situation, focus on ways to avoid such problems in the future.
United Airlines, for example, realized the best way to win back its customers’ trust and affinity was to concentrate on the one thing they truly care about: flights getting to and from their destinations on time. As a result, the airline just finished its best third quarter ever in terms of on-time departures, with employees earning $11 million dollars in operational performance bonuses.
Publicly, United didn’t dwell upon the fact that it wanted to treat customers better in the future or discuss the PR nightmare it had just faced any further in the press. The company simply drilled down to the essence of what customers desired most and did everything possible to deliver the kind of value they were seeking.
Netflix isn’t dancing around the subject, either, and it’s not trying to find a way to do more episodes with a new story arc sans Spacey. It’s just ending production (and thus the cycle of bad press), cutting its losses, separating itself from the star’s struggles and moving on with other initiatives.
If you suddenly find yourself floundering in the mayhem of a PR mishap, let these proven strategies guide your next steps. No one is going to buy a manipulated, manufactured response. But if you’re true to your company’s core values and lay blame only at the feet of the perpetrators, making amends with your existing customers shouldn’t be as challenging as it was to win them over to begin with.
As with all relationships, remaining candid and honest while maintaining boundaries and providing value will help you weather the tough times.