If you’re a small business owner like me, it’s hard to imagine a time when one corporate mis-step might generate headlines. But a PR crisis can affect anyone, whatever the size of your organisation. It’s good to at least be aware of potential threats. What risks are you exposed to? What things could possibly go wrong? And how would you handle it if they did?

PRWeek’s Crisis Communications event on Wednesday (above) was a sharp reminder that none of us can ever take goodwill for granted.

Kirsten Walkom from Save the Children talked about how charities are currently struggling with the halo effect – presuming public trust in them will be higher than it actually is. This perception gap isn’t helping as the charity world faces an unprecedented series of crises: from Save The Children suffering legal action for rescuing migrants at sea to Amnesty International mistreating and bullying staff to the grim ongoing allegations against Oxfam.

Rise of the antagonist

Of course, it’s not just charities who are in trouble. We’re all under more scrutiny than ever. The internet never forgets, and social media is particularly unforgiving. On top of that, the 24 hour news cycle, fake news, malicious bots and clickbait headlines create a kind of perfect storm for crises. As FTI’s James Melville-Ross put it, “We’re seeing the rise of the antagonist…it’s not a particularly friendly atmosphere”.

So how do you protect yourself and your business in a world where some kind of public backlash, at some point, seems almost inevitable? Here are my five top tips from Wednesday.

Five golden rules

  1. Have a plan in place, and be prepared to put it into action. “Do social listening, be prepared for things to escalate, try to pre-empt the worst.” (Natalie Deacon, Avon UK, on Dimplesgate).
  2. Assign team roles beforehand. And add all team members to a WhatsApp group so key information can be shared immediately. (Nicola Green, Telefonica, on O2’s network outage).
  3. Don’t hide! However tempting it may be. “Let customers know as soon as you can that you’re aware of the situation and will keep them updated” (Heather Griffiths, Gatwick Airport, on last December’s drone incident).
  4. Know it’s ok to say sorry. Traditionally “sorry” has been a problem because you could be admitting liability before you need to. But the tide is turning. Comms directors are increasingly arguing against legal teams in favour of some kind of apology, or at least acknowledgement of responsibility, early on. This calms public anger and makes it look like you’re listening. Also, sorry can be said in different ways: “I’m sorry this happened to you” and “I’m sorry you feel this way” can show empathy without admitting liability.
  5. Use every crisis as a learning point. Once a crisis has abated, review your ways of working and ask what your organisation has learned. Share what you’ve learned and how you’ve changed with your audience. (Joanna de Koning of Just East said they expedited their safety and code of conduct processes after a customer was harassed).

Build trust early on

In a room of corporate comms professionals, maybe it wasn’t surprising that the mantra was defend the brand at all costs. Employees came later. It was a perspective to back up the findings of the Monzo event I spoke at last year when it seemed that individual employees, not brands, often suffer the brunt of any fallout.

The examples above may be from large organisations, but my final takeaway was this: bake the right culture and processes into your business early on, build goodwill, be as transparent and honest as possible. When a crisis hits, you’ll at least have built some bridges.

Photo: James Melville-Ross (FTI), Philip Allport (Norwegian Airlines), Klare Kennett (RSPCA) and Richard Scott (Virgin Trains) in the opening debate of the conference.