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November 7, 2014
Converting PR Disasters into Re-Branding Opportunities
In an age when social media faux pas and corporate missteps are magnified to the 10th power, you must learn how to turn a PR disaster into an image upgrade.

Do you remember the BP oil disaster off the Gulf coast? Of course you do, but how do you remember it? I bet the details of the event are a simplified retrospective version that has blurred the specifics.

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded and released millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it was the main headline around the world for many weeks, thanks to 24-hour news cycle channels like CNN. People were vocal about their criticisms and BP’s reputation — which already had a history of controversies — took a very hard hit. The top executives of British Petroleum at the time were called to testify before Congress after the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment decided to launch an investigation on the matter. On top of that fiasco, the Exploration Vice-President of BP at the time, David Rainey, was charged with lying to the Congress panel of inquiry, in which he was accused of understating the seriousness of the oil spill.

So, how did BP resurrect its image, or at least sweep one of the worst PR damages under the rug? It strategically lied, as exemplified proudly by Mr. Rainey, and settled with Gulf coast–based businesses that were affected by the oil spill out of court.

Consider this my warning sign for companies going through their own public image crisis. You do not want to follow BP’s example. Instead, here are three ways to expertly navigate through PR nightmares.

1. Regain Your Customers’ Trust
In survival medicine, a tourniquet is used as a last resort to stop major bleeding. In the context of a PR crisis, you apply the proverbial tourniquet as quickly as possible. The primary objective of your PR response unit is to reassure your customer base that you have control over the situation and let them know you are taking the necessary steps to remedy the problem.

When hackers stole thousands of credit and debit card numbers from Target’s database, the retail company did the right thing and apologized to their customers as quickly as possible. However, that was not enough to ease the mind of worried patrons. Target then reimbursed amounts stolen by the hackers. This proved to be the right way to stop the bleeding.

2. Be More Transparent
Don’t try to sweep your mistakes under the carpet. There’s nothing more disturbing than a political or corporate cover-up in the public’s imagination, whether it’s real or perceived. After a major PR crisis, executives should make their company more transparent and, more importantly, more engaged with their customer base.

3. Learn from Your Mistakes
We’ve all heard the cliché “mistakes are lessons in disguise.” This is true for corporate slip-ups as well. A true PR fix will apologize with real emotion and genuinely acknowledge their mistakes.

A good company leader will use their PR embarrassment as a humbling indication of what needs to be changed in the organization. My advice is to set up a team of analysts to study what went wrong, and then use those lessons to implement practical steps in improving the company.

Overall, the most important element in surviving a public relations crisis is to find the silver lining in a negative situation. If you follow the advice listed above, you will not only repair damage to your organization’s image, but you might even rise from the ashes a better company.

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Adrienne Erin is a freelance writer and designer based in Pennsylvania. She has been passionate about career development ever since her college years — all four of which she spent interning in her college’s career center. Now that she is her own boss, she shares the practical advice that she finds works in her own life. To see more of her work, visit her design blog.
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