How to (and how not to) Manage a Public Relations Crisis

NOTE: This article was written in 2014, but the concepts and tips still apply.

In 2014, thousands of long-time and devoted Market Basket employees and their families rallied behind their executive leadership in support of their ousted CEO. The story garnered national attention, and was significant because it “encapsulated everything wrong with corporate America.”

Minus one ad taken out “for consumers” in the Boston Globe, Market Basket corporate big-wigs seemed (at the time) to have hit the “mute” button on their phones, emails and mouths. The media went into full commentary and speculation mode, and consumers boycotted the chain by the second. Eventually, the CEO’s status was restored and the company was sold.

While it’s ideal for businesses to have crises management plans in place, I recognize this is not always the case. So in that spirit, I’ve highlighted some of Market Basket’s crisis management mistakes and shared tips to more effectively manage crises and save reputations.

Gather your Crisis Communications Team members

First off, breathe. You need to gain control over your emotions, so get calm. If the issue or PR crisis has broken, taking 10 minutes to get your head in the game likely won’t make things worse. Once you’ve completed your fast-track meditation, reach out to the crisis team. This includes management and team members, local political officials, social media and customer service teams, and the police department or emergency services, if warranted.

MB slip: In Market Basket’s case, executives and upper-level management went into panic mode. Rather than take a moment to reflect and talk amongst each other about how to handle their upset employees, they turned to scare tactics and threatened employees with termination hoping that would remedy the issue. Wrong.

Investigate the facts and determine the level of crisis

Now that the team’s briefed, start investigations. This includes sourcing information and facts both internally and externally. You don’t want to respond to the public or media without knowing all the information. Conduct interviews with affected parties, touch base with local public service organizations and advise employees about the situation.

MB Slip: Don’t EVER assume you’re the one holding all the cards. In Market Basket’s case, they didn’t realize just how deep the passion for their former CEO ran amongst their 25,000 employees. While they may have been prepared to let a handful of long-time employees go, in no way were they prepared for the thousands of employees now ready to relinquish their positions, or the consumers ready to stand behind them.

Determine the effects the crisis is having on the business

Is this issue having a serious and immediate impact on business? Do you believe it will have a future impact? You must anticipate these facts so you can properly develop your message strategy and demonstrate the business’ overall positioning on the crisis.

MB Slip: Not considering how employee rallies would affect operations was a gigantic mistake on Market Basket’s part. Not only did drivers refuse to make deliveries until employee demands were met, the company forgot to consider whether or not the actual stores would accept the deliveries. As a result, stores were barren and food went to waste–both with serious financial and environmental impacts.

Assess customer/public sentiment immediately

In today’s social media age, information travels in minutes, not days. Social listening helps your company determine if the issue has made its way into consumer homes, and helps you discover what perceptions it has created. Are there dozens of people talking about it? Hundreds? Thousands? If you’ve reached the thousands, or the media is running stories, it’s no longer an issue–IT’S A CRISIS.

MB Slip: Woops – guess Market Basket big wigs REALLY missed the boat on this one. Not only did they ignore the website started by employees in efforts to educate each other and the public about the ongoing issues, they didn’t bother to check social media either. In four days, I watched the Save Market Basket page jump from 19K “likes” to more than 50,000, with thousands of comments and messages of support from both employees AND customers. Once the media began covering the story on July 18, dozens more sites popped up as a result of the effort and gained traction by the hour.

Determine course of action and company response

Now that you’ve assessed the issues and their impact on operations and public perceptions, you can better create your response and finalize distribution channels. These are the media outlets and social media platforms you’ll utilize to facilitate your message. Will you write a press release? Are you going to release a public statement, hold a press conference–it’s up to you. Your earlier issues assessment will tell you which distribution channels are best. If you want to control the audience message, a press release, company blog post or press conference are great choices. If you are prepared for dialogue, social media is a great option.

MB Slip:  Market Basket’s (seemingly) preferred course of action was to say virtually nothing and ignore everyone. That had me utterly stumped. Market Basket executives seemed to be singlehandedly flushing their longstanding and beloved company down the drain by being so quiet! They also created a letter-style advertisement to consumers condemning the actions of the Market Basket employees that consumers chose to support, which made no sense.

Also, generalized statements or advertisements are impersonal, redundant and a complete waste of ad money, because no one really bothers to read advertisements. UPDATE: Market Basket released a statement on 7/20/14 about the multiple company firings of employees, saying employee actions “negatively impacted customers, and inhibited associates’ abilities to perform their jobs.”

The customers weren’t impacted by employee actions–they chose to stand alongside them. In my opinion, the actions of the Market Basket board and (prior) reigning CEO inhibited associates from doing their jobs, which in turn negatively impacted Market Basket customers.

Distribute your response and monitor public reaction

Understand that company issues and public relations crises take time to die down. It could be days, weeks, or years. Make sure you actively monitor the public’s response so you can address follow-up concerns or questions. Never be invisible and make sure you’re answering media inquiries. When you start seeing supportive commentary coming from external stakeholders, your crisis response is becoming well-received and the immediate impacts will start to lesson. If not, it’s time to reassess the situation with your crisis team and execute a new course of action.

Thanks for reading! Do you have an experience or additional tip to share? Let me know in the comments below. If you’re ready to create your crisis plan, contact us.


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