3 Ways to Turn a Crisis into a Business Opportunity

How to survive (and thrive) after a PR nightmare

In the world of PR, nothing gets the adrenaline going as much as the words “crisis management.” The mere thought of a crisis, or the need to manage one, is enough to keep most business leaders up at night. However, for PR professionals like myself, a crisis represents an opportunity for an organization to truly shine.

Having been in the field for nearly two decades — and having lived through the dotcom bubble explosion, several gubernatorial pet projects, John McAfee’s well-documented flee from Belize and several other very public snafus — I can say with certainty that not all organizations handle a crisis the way they should. Many organizations do things in the face of a crisis that inadvertently make things worse, or extends the crisis well beyond its shelf life.

If you are in business long enough, no matter what size your organization is, at some point you will face a crisis. It is inevitable, but it is survivable. And, here are three easy things you can do to come out on top.

Take the crisis for what it is

Not every crisis situation is the same. For some organizations, a bad review or negative remark on a commenting thread is a major crisis. For others, that is merely a walk in the park.

Bad reviews and negative comments usually boil down to product or service issues. The reality is, you are never going to make everyone happy all the time, but you can save face in the court of public opinion by responding to comments in a positive, helpful manner — no matter how badly they might upset you.

If you see a trend starting, with many different users offering similar negative opinions or reviews, then it is time to evaluate what you are doing wrong. Don’t argue with people online, because that makes your organization look worse. Just fix the issue, let people know you have fixed it, and move on.

The same applies if you are an organization that is in the midst of a major crisis, like a catastrophic accident or giant scandal. The lawyers will tell you to say nothing, but you are going to get sued anyway, so you might as well do what is right for your brand. Acknowledge that the crisis exists, lend your full support to fixing the situation, don’t lie, and make sure the misstep never happens again.

Organizations are made up of humans, and humans are great at making mistakes — that’s what makes us human after all. And, in my experience, most people are forgiving; if they know you are doing the right thing to resolve a situation. However, if people think you are being deceitful, and not thinking of the greater good, your crisis can live on for a very, very long time.

The opportunity: By taking a crisis for what it is, and owning it in terms of reaction and resolution, you will better control the outcome. Customers will see this, and your organization will win in the long run.

Be true to your brand archetype

Archetypes are universal patterns of behaviors that, once discovered, can help people better understand themselves and how they relate to others. In their book, The Hero and the Outlaw, Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson had the idea to apply this to brands in order to improve how brands communicate with customers.

There are 12 primary archetypes that brand experts often refer to, but I will focus on one, “The Nurturer” (also known as The Helper or The Parent), for example purposes.

The motto of the nurturer iswe rise by lifting others,” and brands like Volvo, Pampers and Campbell are known for fitting into this archetype. Customers connect with this brand archetype because it promises protection and emotional warmth.

It will feel out of character if a nurturer brand suddenly appears driven by self-interest, over the interest of others.

If Volvo were to discover a major product defect, and choose to hide this matter rather than own up to it and fix it, the Volvo brand would suffer immensely.

Conversely, by embracing its brand archetype, and letting the public know about a product defect immediately, Volvo would appear to be a champion despite the (hypothetical) product defect.

When the work to rebuild John McAfee’s image was being done, we relied heavily on his brand archetype, The Rebel, to transition the Belize crisis into an opportunity to build his brand equity. I would say that the measure of success for this approach can be seen by the fact that John McAfee is now the CEO of a new venture, an often quoted media pundit, and celebrity — after all, he is being played by Johnny Depp in an upcoming dark comedy.

I don’t recommend this approach for the faint of heart, or most brands, but to each his own; I suppose…

The opportunity: By staying true to your brand archetype, your base will always stand behind you. Deviating from this will alienate those that identify with you, and that have supported you through thick and thin.

Perception is reality

Many years ago, a mentor shared a bit of wisdom with me that can be summed up in the following statement, “perception is reality.” Complex in its simplicity, it is through this basic premise that I have developed my understanding of how the world works, and why people respond to situations the way that they do. It is this bit of knowledge alone that has guided me when a crisis situation arises.

By nature, the way each of us perceives the world is as unique as our fingerprints. Our perceptions are built around genetics, the socialization process, education, life experience and other influencers such as the media. Of the things just listed, the media (social, traditional, etc.) seems to play the biggest role in influencing people’s perceptions on things they can’t experience directly.

That is why it is utterly important, no matter how big or small a crisis might be, that you communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. Whether it is via blogs/vlogs, podcasts, social media channels, online comment threads or good ‘ol media interviews, make sure you get your story out there. In the court of public opinion, no matter how small, the side that communicates best often wins — so long as your focus is on what you are doing to fix the situation, and any other details relevant to that. Do not point fingers, argue, or be deceitful.

The opportunity: By understanding the way things are being perceived, you can better control the narrative around a given situation. Having zero testimony in the court of public opinion gives you no chance of winning hearts and minds.

In closing, when faced with a crisis, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” And always remember, “this too shall pass.”

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