Public Relations can be an extremely useful tool to overturn a negative image for an individual who has tarnished their reputation through an irresponsible act or comment. In Western society, a not uncommon sight is one of a celebrity seeking public forgiveness through an appearance on a popular talk show or a one-to-one prime time interview. Perhaps the best example recently is that of US wrestling star Hulk Hogan, who had his WWE contract terminated in July this year for allegedly making racial comments. On August 31, 2015 Hogan made a tearful appearance on ABC to beg forgiveness and to state that he is not a racist. Proving that even the best PR strategy based on providing an honest and open apology might not always work; at the time of writing, his WWE contract has not been renewed.
For companies or brands in the same situation, coming clean is also an essential part of the process if they want to truly generate public forgiveness and establish good will once again. The first step should be the company concerned admitting that it made a mistake or that something went wrong, as opposed to denying culpability or throwing the blame onto others. This approach can be seen in Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn’s video statement made on September 21, 2015, where he publicly apologised for the company’s recent emissions scandal – the biggest in the company’s 78-year history. The boss claimed that he didn’t have the answers to all of the questions raised, but promised an in depth investigation. Numerous times in his speech he asked for forgiveness from customers all over the world and pleaded for people not to blame all of the company’s 600,000 employees for this lapse. At the time of writing, it is too early to tell if this mea culpa has saved the fortunes of the company. It certainly hasn’t saved his own fortunes, as he was forced to resign just two days after the video was made.
The responsibility of a public relations team when helping their clients in such a position is to help them control media coverage by encouraging them to bite the bullet and speak up in the same fashion as Mr. Winterkorn. In doing so, the team needs to meet with their client to devise a public relations strategy that has both short term and long term aims. As a PR professional, the important thing for you to keep at the forefront of your mind during this process is that the nature of your relationship with the media has changed. Instead of promoting the positive aspects of a brand to them, you are trying to stop them speaking about its perceived negative aspects. You need to remember that the media love a scandal and will do their best to investigate and criticise missteps. That is, after all, their job.
Inadequate internal controls, particularly if you are dealing with a large institution with hundreds of employees, can lead to leaks to the media that compound the situation and merely make matters worse. You should advise your client that written communication relating to the incident should be avoided, as hasty missives that have been formulated in panic and without thought can have far reaching consequences. A natural first reaction in the event of a potential scandal is to advocate hushing things up, which is understandable and in many ways a facet of human nature. When it is finally appreciated that honesty really is the best policy, these early emails and printed communications can come back to haunt your client.
In certain cases, liabilities need to be considered before the media is spoken to and this is where legal teams become major players in the PR team’s strategy. In these instances, appointed spokespersons should be briefed that if members of the media approach them, they should say that they are unable to divulge any information until after the legal issues have been resolved. Other company employees not directly concerned should be reminded of their obligation to say nothing at all if approached.
At some point though, your client needs to step up to the plate and front the media. The best way of doing this is to hold a press conference with the media as invited guests. This gives you and your client a degree of control over the process. Without appearing too cynical, the press conference should be held a sufficient enough time from the event to allow interest to cool, but not so far from it that the media scent subterfuge and decide to take control away from you by writing their own conclusions.
Ultimately, it’s not an impossible task for a company to recover from a scandal. What is needed to handle the crisis is an effective PR team with well-crafted strategies. A major component of this should be to show the public how the company is changing its behaviour and the way it conducts its business, as this makes public forgiveness much more likely.