PR Crisis? We’ve Got Your Back
- Key role. A crisis communication team is crucial for active monitoring and quick, aligned response in crisis.
- Ongoing preparation. Don’t wait for a crisis; assemble, train and engage your CCT, and establish response protocols.
- Custom approach. No one-size-fits-all plan exists; each crisis requires a unique response rooted in proactivity, assertiveness and opportunity.
A social media PR crisis response plan is a strategic framework that guides a business or organization on handling unexpected negative situations or publicity on social media platforms. The goal is to mitigate the damage to the brand’s reputation and reestablish trust with its audience. This article will delve into the details of a social media PR crisis response plan, why a brand should have such a plan in place and how businesses have handled a social PR crisis of their own.
How Does One Define a PR Crisis?
A social public relations (PR) crisis is defined as a situation or event that threatens a brand’s or organization’s reputation, primarily due to negative or harmful discussions, comments, or the spread of information (or misinformation) on social media platforms. This can escalate due to the rapid and vast dissemination of information in the digital age.
Most of the time, a social media PR crisis is not due to actions from a brand itself, but rather, they occur because of statements or actions by an influencer that the brand has partnered with. Occasionally, a brand gets into PR trouble through its actions or statements, and in some cases, due to the public misunderstanding the actions of the brand.
This happened in the case of Uber, which in 2017 was the target of a hashtag #DeleteUber campaign. This occurred as a result of Uber’s response to Donald Trump’s controversial immigration order, when enraged customers demanded that Uber delete their accounts, and then took their campaign to Facebook and Twitter to suggest that their friends do so as well.
This was the result of a huge misunderstanding, and was inspired by Uber’s decision to disable surge pricing at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in response to a taxi drivers’ strike which was spurred by Trump’s immigration order, which Uber put in place to avoid being seen as profiting from tragedy. In this case, protestors mistakenly believed that Uber was profiting from the strike, which was the opposite of what happened — Uber’s response meant that they were likely to carry fewer passengers from JFK. Although Uber publicly stated that their intention was to not profit during a strike, they were unable to turn public opinion enough to matter, as they went on to state that the negative campaign caused them to lose hundreds of thousands of app users.
Notable PR Crises in the News
There are many notable cases where a PR campaign has gone horribly wrong, and all one has to do is watch the news to hear about the latest debacle. Here are two of the most notable PR crises.
Bud Light – In April 2023, Bud Light sent the influencer known as Dylan Mulvaney several Bud Lights, one of which featured her image. In response, Mulvaney posted a video of herself dressed like Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Because Mulvaney, who has 10 million followers on TikTok, is a transgender woman, some conservatives got in an uproar, posting videos of themselves pouring out cans of Bud Light, and tossing cases into the trash. Celebrities even got into the debate, with Kid Rock shooting cases of Bud Light with an assault rifle, and Travis Tritt banning Bud Light from his concert tour. All this came at a time when trans rights, and trans issues in general, were at a boiling point for many right-wing politicians and activists.
The fiasco resulted in Anheuser-Busch putting two marketing executives on leave and canceling an April event in Missouri due to safety concerns for its employees. More importantly for the brand, Anheuser-Busch lost $27 billion in market value, and its market cap lost $6.33 billion between April 3 and April 22. Bud Light also suffered a 17% drop in sales since the partnership with Mulvaney, which began as part of a sweepstakes challenge where people could win $15,000 by submitting videos of themselves holding Bud Light beers.
Anheuser-Busch released a somewhat disingenuous statement from its CEO, Brendan Whitworth, on April 14, stating that he is “responsible for ensuring every consumer feels proud of the beer we brew.” The statement then went on to discuss the many fans of Bud Light, explaining that “We have thousands of partners, millions of fans and a proud history supporting our communities, military, first responders, sports fans and hard-working Americans everywhere.” Finally, the statement got to the point, and said that “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
The statement did little to calm the outraged conservatives, and instead angered many LGBTQ+ customers and supporters, as it neither denied or affirmed support for trans people nor stood up against the hatred that many former customers showed toward the transgender influencer at the heart of the debate.
The Bud Light debacle is a good example of a PR campaign gone wrong, as well as an ineffective response to the crisis, one that Anheuser-Busch is still reeling from. Over the July Fourth holiday, for the first time, Bud Light was not the top choice for any state in the US. Additionally, in mid-July, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that Florida may file a lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch over the alleged breach of duties by “subsidizing an ideological agenda through woke virtue signaling.”
Adidas – In 2022, musical artist Kanye West, now known as Ye, made antisemitic comments on his social media accounts, discussed antisemitic conspiracy theories with (former) Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and then threatened violence against Jews on social media. On October 8th, West posted the following inexcusable post on Twitter:
On October 25th, Adidas ended its partnership with Ye, followed by Gap and then Foot Locker, both of which said they would immediately remove Yeezy products from their stores. Not long after, Foot Locker released the following statement:
“Foot Locker, Inc. does not tolerate any form of antisemitism, or hateful and discriminatory behavior. While we remain a partner with adidas and carry a wide assortment of their collections — we will not be supporting any future Yeezy product drops.”
Gap also released a statement:
“Antisemitism, racism and hate in any form are inexcusable and not tolerated in accordance with our values,” said Gap, which announced in September that it would end its partnership with Ye. The clothing retailer said at the time it would sell through its remaining Yeezy inventory.”
Both statements were similar to Adidas’ own statement, which stated:
“Adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech. Ye’s recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness.”
After Adidas ended its partnership with Kanye West, the brand was stuck with $1 billion worth of unsold Yeezy products, which it eventually sold off due to a class-action lawsuit that was filed by Adidas shareholders, who accused Adidas of being aware of West’s hurtful behavior, and failing to stop the potential damage.
Assemble a Crisis Communication Team
A crisis communication team (CCT) is a designated group within a business or organization that is responsible for managing and responding to emergencies, unexpected events, or situations that could harm the organization’s reputation, operations, or stakeholder value. This team plays a crucial role in crisis management by ensuring that communication during a crisis is timely, accurate, consistent and aligned with the organization’s best interests.
A CCT would monitor and listen to social media, and be able to immediately respond to any potential PR crisis before it turns into a PR nightmare. Once a potential issue is spotted, the clock is ticking. Through active monitoring tools, like Brandwatch or Google Alerts, they can be quickly informed about brand mentions, ensuring that any coming crisis is nipped in the bud.
Zach Olsen, president of Infinite Global, an international public relations firm, told CMSWire that ideally, a crisis management team will include decision-makers at the company — the CEO, COO, or other members of the management team who are empowered to make decisions and green-light communications. “The company’s general counsel or outside counsel should 100% be involved in approving all actions and communications. And if the company does not have experienced internal crisis communications experts, an external team should be engaged to oversee the response, draft communications, and advise on how to minimize the company’s risk and reputational exposure,” said Olsen.
Olsen explained that depending on the size of the organization, its internal communications team will often be involved in crisis response as well, assisting with tracking sentiment, social media and providing the external comms team with the necessary context and brand insight it needs to respond thoughtfully to a crisis.
Crisis Responses Will Be Different for Each Situation
Because there is no way for a brand to know beforehand just what a social media crisis will look like at any given time, the brand must prepare for a crisis without focusing on any one particular PR disaster. Shannon Tucker, VP and in-house crisis expert at Next PR, told CMSWire that there is no “one way” a social media PR crisis response plan should look because every situation is different. “However, the first step is ensuring your organization is aligned on general considerations and risks: ‘Is there an opportunity to assuage the audience’s fears by posting on social media?’ and ‘What is the risk of commenting on social media — will it make things worse?’”
Tucker said that although each plan will look different, if an organization is aligned on an approach that reflects the core tenets of all social media crisis plans — proactivity, assertiveness and opportunity — an organization sets itself up for a much smoother crisis aversion.
Writing the actual crisis response requires the CCT to take a deep look at what has occurred, and how they can bring everything they know together in order to best respond to the crisis. “In order to write a good statement, a crisis team must assess what they know for certain, what they don’t know immediately but may in the future, and what they’ll never know,” said Olsen. “Determine who the audiences are — often during a crisis, companies will get too focused on the group of stakeholders that is making the most noise. Smart crisis teams take into account all audiences and craft statements that don’t alienate groups they care about.” Olsen said that there are several elements that brands should focus on when it comes to drafting a crisis response statement:
- Stick to the point – statements should be concise, to the point, and not stray from the immediate issue at hand.
- Show empathy – avoid taking a defensive posture, show that you’re listening to those impacted by the issue and don’t hide from a mistake if one was made.
- Provide a solution – a good statement gives a solution to the problem or steps the company will be taking to remediate and/or avoid similar issues in the future.
“Don’t wait for a crisis to happen, prepare for it,” said Olsen. “Build and train your crisis response team, establish protocols, hire and onboard your outside legal and communications counsel, and understand your company’s risks.”
Brands should be realistic — it’s only a matter of time before a crisis hits your brand, suggested Olsen. “It’s up to you how much damage it does. Respond quickly and decisively. Nine times out of ten, a crisis doesn’t just ‘go away’,” said Olsen, adding that smart companies are prepared to respond and do so without hesitation.
Final Thoughts on Crisis Response Plans
Unforeseen PR crises can swiftly tarnish reputations and slash market values. Most often, these crises aren’t just about the initial spark, but the response — or lack thereof — that follows. The missteps of Bud Light’s response to the Dylan Mulvaney backlash, contrasted with the more decisive actions by Adidas and Foot Locker, underscore the significance of having a well-prepared crisis communication team and a robust PR crisis response plan.