How to Survive a Public Relations Crisis

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It’s a place none of us wants to be: In the middle of a public relations crisis. But in the nightclub and bar industry, crises do happen. What matters is how you handle them.

It could be a customer who drives home drunk and hits a pedestrian; it could be sexual assault; or serving a minor. None of this is the type of publicity your operation wants.

How do you prepare for a PR crisis before it happens, and what do you do if one does?

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“Any time there’s alcohol involved, it can be a huge crisis waiting to happen, so every facility needs a crisis communications plan and that needs to be a significant part of opening a new nightclub and bar,” says Jamie Izaks, president of All Points Public Relations in Chicago, who has helped many operations make a crisis plan.

Before a Crisis Occurs

Who’s Who

Decide which members of staff are involved in the crisis communication committee. Make a list of who should be called, and in what order, if a crisis occurs. Make sure all contacts are kept up to date. Detail the roles and responsibilities of these people. The people chosen can be internal (managers, for instance) or external (such as public relations personnel).

Create a Communication Plan

This is the most important component of a crisis management plan and should be a three- to five-page document.

This should include holding statements. So, if something were to happen, what’s the first thing you say to the media, on social media, to customers, employees, other stakeholders like neighboring businesses, and other people in the chain (if you are a chain). “This statement is going to be fairly generic,” Izaks explains. A typical example from All Points is, “We are aware, concerned and are monitoring the situation. We will share facts as they become known.”

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Make sure every employee knows where this plan is and that anyone who could be impacted by a crisis has training around it. “Every employee should know what to do when a crisis happens, especially management,” Izaks explains.

This plan should be available in hard copy and digitally so employees can access it easily in whichever format makes most sense to them.

Timeline

In your crisis communications plan, create a timeline, Izaks suggests. “How quickly do things need to happen and how long can things be delayed?” This includes a checklist that should be customized for every scenario—for high-level and low-level crises, he points out. The timeline should be structured in one-hour, three-hour, one-day, one-week, and one-month increments, he advises, and it can, of course, be reconfigured depending on the crisis you’re facing.

Media Training 

A spokesperson should be trained to speak with the media after a potential crisis. This person should have key messages, including suggested responses to tough interview questions. It’s also a good idea to have a mock interview with this person, suggests Izaks, to prepare him or her.

Annual Updates

Update your crisis communication plan annually with your PR company or whoever helped you draft it. “Crisis is always changing,” Izaks says. “We had the advent of social media; we don’t know what tomorrow’s crisis will be.”

Simulate a Crisis

Think up a crisis scenario and discuss the steps that need to be followed in response, including referencing timelines and selecting who to contact.

Don’t let employees goof off on this, either. It’s a good idea to bring in a third party, such as your public relations firm, and have cameras to make the scenario as real as possible.

After the Crisis

Call Emergency Vehicles

If there’s an injury, make sure emergency vehicles are called before anything else. “You have to make sure the health and safety of your employees and guests are taken care of,” Izaks says. “That should happen within minutes of something happening.”

Gather Details

As an owner or manager, try to gather as many details as possible from as many people as you can, as quickly as possible. Check any cameras you have to provide footage, too. If there are witnesses, get their contact information and take down statements; “people can forget, maybe they can get swayed in their opinion as time passes,” Izaks says. If possible, record them with your phone.

On the Screen

If your crisis is digital, on social media, or a review site, respond and offer to fix the situation and make things right as quickly as possible. “In a more severe situation, more assessment is needed and might not happen within a minute or 30 minutes, but in a few hours,” Izaks says.

Comment Quickly

Once you have all the facts about a crisis, get your comments out there quickly, he adds. “You never want rumors flying around and you want to show some empathy for the situation. So, if something’s happened, you’ve got to look like you’re on top of it. Imagine the trust that’s lost when you don’t take control.”

A new, more specific statement should be written after a crisis, and it takes the place of the holding statement. “It’s important to update the statements as new information becomes available,” says Izaks. “It is equally important to have a system in place to ensure key decisionmakers have access to the most updated communication materials at all times.”

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Also, adds Izaks, make sure just one or two people are involved in the approval process for these comments, so they can be disseminated quickly.

Monitor Media and Social Media

Keep on top of what the public is saying about you to determine whether you need to update statements and answer additional questions.

“The overall objective should be to drive the conversation offline, while reinforcing brand values and the commitment being made to resolving the crisis,” Izaks says.

Apologize

It may sound simple but remember to simply say you’re sorry for whatever has happened. “Saying you’re sorry can go a long way with your customers,” says Izaks.

Make sure you show empathy for whoever’s been wronged. “You want to show an immense amount of empathy for those impacted, you want to show care and consideration for everyone else who’s not impacted but has an interest in it,” he says.

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At the end of the day, he says, when a crisis occurs it’s vitally important how you respond to it. “It is your reputation and your future business at stake. If you don’t have a smart way to remediate what’s gone wrong, you will fail and business will be impacted, and you may not recover from it.”

Rebuilding Trust

Once the worst has passed, it’s important for your bar or nightclub to re-establish trust with consumers. Throughout the crisis, you should cease marketing efforts until the situation has been fully resolved.

The post-crisis marketing program should focus on rebuilding trust with all stakeholders. “It’s important for the company to stop apologizing and devise a plan to move forward,” Izaks says. Start fresh campaigns to re-establish brand loyalty and push positive news to the top of search rankings.

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