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Marketing Content Strategy

I’ve Made a Huge Mistake: Handling a PR Crisis From Content Marketing

6 Minute Read

It’s been a long day for one social media manager. Between running a Twitter Q&A that’s crossed about four time zones, managing a sizeable and lively conversation on a recently released Facebook video, and testing out some new live video content to improve his brand’s footprint on Snapchat, he’s found himself at the office late. He schedules a couple of last posts, and heads home.

When he walks into the office the next day, he’s not expecting the crush of commotion going on around him. His brand is in the middle of a full-blown PR crisis, which means he’s going to be on the front lines. He checks in with his team to get a bead on the situation . . . and discovers his late-night tweets were the spark that lit the powder keg.

I like to give a little credit to social media marketers in situations like these because in an industry that already moves at breakneck speed, social media likes to remind us just how quick the speed of light is. But the reality for many brands that find themselves in a similar situation isn’t always the product of such stress—sometimes people just make mistakes. It is always going to happen.

For a masterclass in PR crises of this sort, marketers need only look back at 2014. From DiGiorno chiming in on a Twitter hashtag about domestic violence to Malaysia Airlines overlooking the ironic significance of their “bucket list” campaign, it’s often in retrospect and at a distance that marketers get to look back and say “well yeah, that was a horrible idea.” But what do you do when it’s your brand—or even your team—that’s made the mistake?

Rule 1: Remember Your Friends

If you’re reading this in your office right now, stop for a second and look around. Is there someone speaking to a member of your leadership team while repeatedly mumbling “you can’t say that” and shaking their head? Maybe they’re bouncing between two phone handsets, switching between offering and asking for quotes about something? That person is a part of your PR team; it may have been a little bit since you last spoke. Go say hi. Buy them a coffee maybe.

When content marketing goes sideways, it’s natural to want to clean up the mess yourself. After all, you know the platforms, the content, and the conversations better than anyone else, right? It’s this sense of ownership that often reinforces a quiet, small gap that stands between many PR and marketing teams. But where your content team excels at understanding your audience’s interests that lead eventually to products and loyalty, your PR team excels at understanding the propriety, perceptions, and prejudices that lead your audience to respect or despise your brand. It’s a small difference in professional aim that becomes essential in times of crisis.

Before you do anything else, go grab your PR team. If you aren’t in a crisis right at the moment, maybe now is a good time to start building some lines of communication that will serve you when problems do arise.

I've Made a Huge Mistake: Handling a PR Crisis From Content Marketing

Image attribution: Francisco Moreno

Rule 2: Engage/Disengage

When a mistake happens in PR and marketing, there are essentially two overall approaches you can take—either face it head on or try to let it fade into obscurity.

Both methods have their merits, but each excel in different use cases. Disengaging works best when a situation isn’t acutely harming your business and appears to be fading quickly. Engagement is necessary when a situation is either harming your business directly or isn’t about to go away on its own.

Determining which approach to take is actually pretty easy, as long as you set up concrete ways to measure the situation, rather than going with your gut. Towards this end, I like to use an approach I call “threshold and horizon.” When your crisis hits, first declare metrics affected by the situation that you can measure: search strength and position, site traffic, site behavior, and eventual conversion are all good places to look. Next, define an amount of movement for each metric that you would consider acutely damaging—I like to think in time frames, so I often go with something like losing a week’s worth of work or gain in the course of a few days. This is your “crisis threshold,” and it will help you keep your team level-headed and objective in their decision making during your situation.

Next, define a time frame in which you think your PR crisis should blow over naturally. Another way of thinking about it is to define a window in which you would be willing to incur acute metric damage without having to take dramatic action to adjust it. This window will be dramatically different depending on the pace of your industry, but typically shouldn’t fall outside of three days to a month. This is your “crisis horizon,” and it will help you identify when even a slow-burn scenario is hanging on for too long.

Once you have these two measures, engage/disengage just becomes a question of monitoring. If your metrics never fall into your acute damage threshold, and if they stabilize within your horizon window, then disengagement is probably fine. If your brand or website starts taking measurable flak or if your metrics are having trouble stabilizing within your horizon, you’ll likely need to take some direct action.

Image of a poster that reads

Image Attribution: Jon Tyson

Rule 3: Aim for “Personable Distance”

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to approach engage/disengage. Much of this should be a no-brainer, but for instance when Malaysia Air tried to disengage from their “bucket list” debacle, they did so by killing the page of the campaign, resulting in massive backlink traffic to a 404 page on their site—they killed their search credibility and strength, effectively creating a new problem as they tried to solve another.

Conversely, DiGiorno did a pretty excellent job of engagement. Instead of trying to sweep the issue under the rug, delete tweets, and so on, DiGiorno took to the social space and proceeded to at-mention and apologize to everyone who tweeted them with the #WhyIStayed hashtag. The clear effort and authentic apologies of the brand allowed them to effectively control damage, and now the legacy of the event isn’t of a brand without a heart—it’s of a faceless person within a brand making a human mistake.

DiGiorno did something very subtle, however, that every brand should take note of in their engagement strategy. Their authentic approach was excellent, and one that many brands are decent at. But at the same time that the brand was responding to Twitter personally, each of the apology tweets subtly changed tense and person: the brand no longer referred to itself as a collective or in unspoken third-person, it switched to first-person “I.” In this, DiGiorno was not only able to highlight the human factor behind their mistake—they were able to create quiet distance between their regular brand voice and the incident.

This is really what it comes down to in the heart of a crisis, both for our tired social media manager and any other brand that makes a hiccup along the course of their content marketing. Some mistakes land on the “forget” end of forgive and forget, but you need to be able to measure that. In the almost unavoidable scenario where you have to address a misstep, however, a personably authentic approach that also distracts away from regular brand voice will both help soothe the wounds you’ve created while preserving your brand presence for an eventual return to normalcy.

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Featured image attribution: Alphacolor 13

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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