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Handle on a scandal: How to deal with a PR crisis

PUBLISHED: 08:00 28 August 2019 | UPDATED: 08:17 28 August 2019

Philip Green (inset) owner of Topshop has faced a PR scandal after he was accused of, and has since denied, harrassing members of staff. Picture: PA/GoogleImages

Philip Green (inset) owner of Topshop has faced a PR scandal after he was accused of, and has since denied, harrassing members of staff. Picture: PA/GoogleImages

PA/GoogleImages

They say that any PR is good PR - but when does bad PR become a scandal? East Anglian experts discuss how to steer the narrative.

Hayley Mace,  head of communications at the New Anglia LEP. Picture: Lesley van DijkHayley Mace, head of communications at the New Anglia LEP. Picture: Lesley van Dijk

The result was singer Beyonce buying out the 15% stake Mr Green and his company Arcadia had in her clothing line Parkwood.

Andy Newman is the founder of Norwich firm Newman Associates PR. He believes having a pre-existing positive reputation is key to surviving a scandal.

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"It's a bit like a bank account," he said. "If you make regular small deposits, then when you have a financial emergency, you have a positive balance to draw on, and you can probably avoid going into the red. Any business needs to constantly build and maintain their reputation, so that if something does go wrong, they are drawing on a positive balance in their 'reputation bank'."

Fellow PR business owner Suzy Pettican agreed, saying that as well as building trust "it goes without saying that all businesses should be acting legally and morally".

Suzy Pettican, founder of Reflection PR. Picture: Reflection PRSuzy Pettican, founder of Reflection PR. Picture: Reflection PR

The Norwich company founder continued: "The best way to manage any PR crisis is with integrity. Identify the facts, take ownership of the situation and apologise, communicating quickly. Social media sentiment needs to be measured and customers communicated with. Burying your head in the sand and ignoring things won't help."

One example which is held up in the PR industry of how to handle a crisis appropriately is Southwest Airlines, which was rated as the safest airline in the world until April 2018 when it saw its first in-flight fatality after an engine exploded.

The airline ensured all passengers had travel and accommodation arrangements following the emergency landing and posted regular emergency updates on social media.

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Travellers also received phone calls and notes slipped under doors of temporary accommodation reminding them that trauma counselling was available. Mrs Pettican added: "Times have changed and consumers are watching how companies behave. Old school tactics are no longer acceptable. For example, late payments used to be thought of as 'the way we do things around here'. It's no longer seen as acceptable; customers judge companies on the way they conduct their business and treat people."

And old school tactics are even more dated when used in the context of contemporary scandals such as the cyber attack launched on Norfolk turkey farm Bernard Matthews.

In February the bank details of 200 workers at the Lenwade-based company were "potentially compromised".

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Kate Bowden Smith, above right, managing director of Felixtowe's Pier Marketing, said that the approach to a scandal should be handled the same no matter if it was a more modern concern.

PR specialist Andy Newman. Picture: Newman Associates PR.PR specialist Andy Newman. Picture: Newman Associates PR.

She said: "I do not think it matters what the issue is, when it comes to protecting your business it is what you do in response to a crisis that matters.

"Acting responsibly in all areas of your business is a good place to start. However, investing a little bit up front to prepare a user-friendly and accessible plan of action should things go wrong is the best spend you will ever make to future-proof your business."

Hayley Mace, head of communications at the New Anglia LEP, said: "If a firm has a rigid cyber security plan in place and has taken reasonable action to prevent data being accessed or leaked, then security breaches are, unfortunately, something which cannot be completely avoided. But like any action by a business, if a problem is caused by carelessness, lack of preparedness or just ignorance of a potential issue, then consumers and shareholders will, quite rightly, not be sympathetic."

Ms Mace, who is a 
CIPR Accredited PR practitioner, added: "I'd give two simple pieces of advice. Firstly, and this is the best piece of advice I have been given, is to tell the truth and tell it first. That might not always sit well with a company's legal advisers, but however ugly the truth may be, it will always end up coming out better than a lie.

"Secondly, be human. People respond to people, so make sure someone is the face of any apologies/explanations or media calls."

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