The Dos and Don’ts of Navigating a Public Relations Crisis
by Gabriel Muñoz
Within the last year, celebrities and brands have faced a similar problem: What is the best strategy when a public relations crisis occurs? Recently, Taylor Swift and Ticketmaster, Lizzo, Dylan Mulvaney and Bud Light, Drew Barrymore, and more chose to make public statements, offering up an explanation or apology for their actions, to varying degrees of success. Others have taken the silent route, with hopes the news will eventually blow over and the next big story will grab everyone’s attention. Case in point: Justin Timberlake, who has since stayed quiet after numerous bombshell revelations surfaced after the release of Britney Spears’ New York Times best-selling memoir The Woman in Me. The damning disclosures and the subsequent fallout seen across mainstream news and social media have experts suggesting Timberlake’s career may now be in jeopardy.
Being prepared before a crisis occurs is imperative. To ensure a celebrity or brand makes the right decisions when a public relations crisis arises, here are four do’s and don’ts to keep in mind:
Do: Be open and transparent
In response to a crisis, what a celebrity or company says matters. The statement must be factual and hold weight. According to Deborah Hileman, CEO of the Institute of Crisis Management, a business consultancy, “Being transparent about a situation, even a negative one, can help retain or rebuild trust. People appreciate honesty, and acknowledging mistakes is a sign of integrity.” Brands and celebrities should steer clear of intentionally misleading their audiences and avoid not taking responsibility for their actions. Being aware of how much you say is crucial, as too much or too little can be just as bad. Be clear, concise and honest from the beginning.
Don’t: Flip-flop on your stance
The general public hates flip-floppers. The most glaring example is the Bud Light and Dylan Mulvaney public relations nightmare that occurred earlier this year. In April, Bud Light partnered with Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender actress and influencer, for a sponsored Instagram video, which helped promote “their “Easy Carry Contest,” offering customers a chance at $15,000 for uploading videos of them carrying as many cans of beer as possible,” according to Them. Soon after the video went live, anti-trans commentators and right-wing media nationwide started attacking Mulvaney and calling for a boycott against Bud Light, which eventually led musician Kid Rock to post a violent reaction video of him shooting up the company’s beer cans. Anheuser-Busch, Bud Light’s parent company, responded with a statement, completely changing its stance. According to CNN Business, the statement read, in part: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” Anheuser-Busch’s choice to not stand their ground (and let their partner Mulvaney hang out to dry) was an ultimate PR failure. According to Lauren Jennings, executive vice president and crisis communications strategist at Alison Brod Marketing and Communications, “You need to stick with the stance you’re taking…[even if] it might mean you’re going to lose a subset of your audience. But if you start flip-flopping, you’re setting yourself up to lose your entire audience.” Unfortunately, Bud Light has since lost a significant amount of its audience. According to an August 2023 CNN Business report, the company was down almost $400 million in revenue due to the fiasco.
Do: Respond promptly
Timing is everything, especially when a crisis hits, and knowing when to act is an essential part of any effective crisis communication plan. Many experts suggest taking a “wait-and-see” approach when responding, including Jennings, who says, “You have to evaluate: ‘Is this story going to die or is this going to continue to take off?’ The red flag alert for us is when the narrative direction has the potential to have an immediate impact on sales.” If a celebrity or company decides to make a statement, they should first acknowledge the situation with their audience. This allows their audience to know that they are at least aware of the situation and will respond with a well-thought-out statement shortly. According to Meltwater, a media monitoring and analytics software company, “These simple gestures go a long way to diffusing tension online, and are pillars of a good crisis management plan.”
Don’t: Let your emotions run wild
It’s easy to let your emotions get the best of you when a crisis strikes. However, it’s important to remember to avoid responding negatively, lashing out or trying to shift the blame onto someone else. In these situations, this is where strategy comes into play. According to Fast Company, “This can help you make better decisions and handle the situation more effectively. So, take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, and approach the situation with a clear mind.”
Since the rise of social media, the media landscape has continually evolved and is already different compared to how it was just five years ago. In addition, today’s consumers expect a lot more from the brands they invest in, including knowing what causes, policies and politicians they support. Now is the time more than ever for celebrities and brands to have their crisis response done the right way, the first time.