How to Prevent Brand Advocates From Abandoning Ship During a PR Crisis

A Guide for Maintaining Support Despite Negative Publicity

When a company or organization finds itself in rough waters for whatever reason, they lose more than sales or donations. There’s the likelihood of losing many of their strongest supporters as well. These loyal supporters are also known as brand advocates, and you should be paying close attention to them. That is, if you want their help during the good times and, most importantly, the bad.

First, I need to clarify the differences between the various types of brand supporters before things get too confusing:

Brand advocates are unpaid fans of your business or organization. They are incredibly loyal to your brand regardless of whether they’re an existing customer or not. These fans support you on their own free will, and they’ll promote you to their own networks without asking for anything in return. Employees are also potential brand advocates.
Brand ambassadors are paid promoters of your brand. You hire these individuals to represent your brand for full campaigns. They are often shown as the face of your brand in advertising, and you’ll often see them as spokespeople. Whenever you see celebrities representing a company or product, they are serving as brand ambassadors.
Influencers are people who have built large, attentive audiences online, and they are a great source for word-of-mouth brand promotion. You can reach out to influencers for help promoting your blog, product, or anything really. It just depends on the influencer’s focus and their audience’s interests. Bloggers and celebrities can both be influencers when they clearly have sway with their audiences.
Micro-influencers are like influencers from above, but their audiences are not nearly as large. However, their smaller audiences are highly engaged and responsive to their activity online. Although you won’t reach as many people with micro-influencers, you’ll still have an opportunity to reach an audience that is more likely to engage with your brand.

Shirley Pellicer wrote an article here on Medium that dives deeper into these terms, and I highly recommend taking a look if you’re still confused.

For purposes of this article though, I’m focusing entirely on brand advocates.

In the news lately, we’ve encountered several BIG examples of PR disasters. United Airlines has two instances of viral publicity that did not show them in good light. The Fyre Festival is another example, and we can’t ignore Pepsi’s poor choice in commercials.

So, what can you do to lessen the damaging blow to your brand whenever a PR crisis occurs? How can you keep your strongest supporters (brand advocates) from abandoning you? Let’s go into five of the most beneficial techniques to implement.

1) Have a Crisis Management Plan Ready to Go.

To start, what is a crisis management plan in the first place?

A crisis management plan is a pre-established, official process to follow whenever an unexpected issue arises, including an assessment of the situation, how you’ll control public engagement, and a clear understanding of who will handle what.

I’m going to take a moment to emphasize that last part: “a clear understanding of who will handle what.”

It’s called a crisis for a reason. Things can get out of control fast. It won’t help if you leave crisis management to the wrong people. During these tense times, you may want to hand the reigns over to people trained in handling these moments. Any lead or otherwise experienced customer service staff could be good for this.

You also want to make sure that everyone knows what they need to do. If your social media staff aren’t communicating with management about what’s being said online, the damage can get exponentially worse. If your CEO isn’t getting involved because (s)he has no idea what (s)he needs to do, that can hurt your efforts as well.

Regardless of your business size, you need to have this plan in place now in case of a PR crisis in the future. It doesn’t matter if you’re a local business or nationwide, you can still go viral for all the wrong reasons thanks to social media and news publications.

When you have this plan established, you can rest assured that you’ll be ready to handle a crisis much more effectively than otherwise. It’s not going to make your crisis disappear, but it’ll help you lessen the damage done to your brand.

2) Skip the Corporate Talk.

Being human in how you communicate with people is probably the best way to calm tensions. What do I mean by being human?


These are some emotions relevant to a PR crisis:

  • Remorse
  • Empathy
  • Maturity

When you make it clear that you understand and regret the situation, and when you handle the chaos with maturity, you increase the likelihood of resolving the conflict without excess damage.

Back to your brand advocates, they’ll be more likely to continue their support in hard times when you show the above emotions in your public communications. They won’t feel as defensive and nervous about voicing their support because you’ll be making the necessary effort to resolve the situation.

When you’re considering how to communicate with the public, you should have a strong wordsmith on staff. Find (or hire) someone on your content team who knows how to write in a way that’s expressive and effective at calming tensions on social media, blogs, and other mediums.

The more emotion you put into your crisis communications, the more relatable you’ll be — the more people will appreciate your efforts. This is especially key when announcing an apology. Give people what they want to see to get them to accept your apology without backlash.

3) Publicly admit your wrongdoing, if any blame is accurate, after a proper investigation of both sides.

The first part of this tactic is that you need to do a proper investigation of both sides. To the public, you’re not the victim. The people offended or hurt are.

With the investigation, it’s best when you hire a neutral party who can look at both sides without bias. The public will appreciate hearing that you’re not letting your own biases get in the way of the investigation.

Situations with Unknown Guilt

On social media, use your brand account to issue a public apology within one day of the guilty verdict. Ideally, you should respond within an hour of the news, but you don’t want to apologize without a conclusive verdict.

Instead, when you’re waiting for the investigation to finish, send out a tweet or post expressing support for the victim(s). Tell the public that you’re looking into the incident, and if you have an unbiased firm investigating, make that public knowledge.

It is during this period of unknown when your brand advocates may still support you. They won’t know the true facts yet, and their support for your brand could be strong enough to remain intact — for now. Some advocates may want to abandon ship, and that’s why it’s so important for you to publicly explain about the unbiased investigation and your support for the victim(s).

Situations with Obvious Guilt

Sometimes, it’s quite obvious your company is at fault. In this case, an investigation is still necessary, but the apology should be immediate.

The investigation would be more about gathering the facts of what went wrong and how to do better next time. It wouldn’t need an outside firm, and it doesn’t have a rushed timeline.

When you’re issuing an apology, check, recheck, and check again your wording. Get your best content writer to write it. An apology that has the right wording will help lessen the crisis damage. An apology that is rushed and riddled with controversial wording will only add fuel to the fire.

In situations with obvious guilt, you’re more likely to see your brand advocates abandon ship and at a faster rate. They’ll know the facts because there’s proof already out there. The incident with the doctor on the United Airlines flight included several samples of video footage. There’s no doubt of wrongdoing there.

To keep your supporters from leaving you, you have to go back to the part about showing emotion. Express regret for what happened. Explain that your company as a whole condemns the actions of the guilty employees. To make your words more believable, have them come from your CEO. However, make sure a strong writer comes up with the script. People tend to believe other people more than they do brands, so give them that human touch.

4) Reassure your audience that you’ll make things right regardless of guilt.

Sometimes the fire from a controversy is so strong that it doesn’t even matter that you’re innocent of any wrongdoing. It is during those times when you need to reassure your audience and brand advocates that you’re not going to let this problem go unanswered — that you’re going to make things right.

When you take this approach, it’s important that you explain how you’ll fix the situation in a way that’s practical and believable. This is not the time for empty or vague promises.

This is also not the time for defensive remarks from anyone on your staff. A single negative remark from one staff member, especially on the executive team, can make a PR crisis an even worse nightmare.

If you want your brand advocates to continue supporting you, you must make it clear that you’ll resolve this controversy quickly and appropriately. Reassurance can soothe nervousness and help your supporters feel safe in advocating for you.

5) Be transparent with your audience about what you’ll do to prevent another issue like this.

This is another example of when not to be vague or to offer empty promises. Instead, write a blog article explaining what went wrong and what you’ll do to prevent the issue in the future. A clear, realistic proposal can go a long way with both your brand advocates and critics.

United Airlines announced their promise to change with 10 customer service policies they’ll implement. The next step is to see if they keep their word.

It’s important that you give your audience access to your proposed changes because transparency is key to resolving conflict.

When you stay behind the scenes, your PR crisis will continue to grow. People won’t know that you’re making improvements. On the other hand, when you make your changes public, it eases tensions and gives your brand advocates reason to support you again.

Those are just five of the many ways you can prevent your brand advocates from abandoning you during a PR crisis. You can also:

  • Talk to your top advocates individually on social media to ease concerns and evaluate their support.
  • Keep thorough record of everything regarding the crisis, as proof for your supporters and as a learning tool.

Would you add any strategies to this list? What has worked for you vs. what hasn’t?

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