Almost every major company has experienced at least one form of public relation disasters. This may include anything from ecological disasters and inappropriate Tweets, to devastating scandals and product failure. Naturally, some companies are better at handling it while others fail. Luckily, there is a lesson to be learned from each situation, especially for business leaders who know where to look.
Most of the PR disasters that have happened in recent years will serve as teaching materials for the upcoming generations of leaders. There are several crucial lessons each future leader needs to learn about handling PR disasters if they want to avoid getting the label 'bad leader' permanently stuck to their name.
Lesson 1 - Be present
The most important trait of a good business leader is to be the first on location when a PR disaster strikes. On the front lines, in the trenches guiding your team through the storm of media questions, first-hand updates and visibly working on repairing the issue. Your team needs to know that you have their back, and the public needs to see you leading your team towards success.
Avoiding such situations can lead to an additional PR disaster, this time for you personally as a business leader. Being absent, appearing as if you do not care about the organization or the situation it is in, you will have the entire public turning against you in no time. Even worse would be appearing that you do not care about the situation the people affected by, the whatever disaster your company has been a part of, are in.
The quality of a good business leader is to excel during the bad times, fixing issues, managing both his team and media and focusing on the priorities. Just keeping up appearances is not an option in situations involving PR disasters; you need to be present, involved and also lead by example.
Let's imagine a situation in which someone in your paper company (thanks to The Office, it's an example everyone can imagine) goes to a local newspaper and says the safety situation in your warehouse is appalling and that people are breaking bones on regular basis. You need to be there to show people that you care, to take on this problem hands-on, but also because your employees need a leader in such a situation.
Lesson 2 - Learn to be humble
If the you or your company are responsible for making a mistake or causing a problematic situation, rather than ignoring it - apologize and let the public know what steps you are taking to fix the issue.
For many leaders saying sorry is a sign of weakness, and they think it leaves them and their company open for lawsuits. However, showing remorse, and humanizing the face of your company will definitely bring the public and the media back to your corner. In addition, proper wording when issuing an apology will be enough to avoid any legal issues.
Refusing to acknowledge responsibility has potential to be lethal both for you and your company, it demonstrates lack of care for your clients and their concern. The ideal solution is to announce the plan for remedying the situation along with the apology. A great example of this is Toyota which had to recall millions of vehicles because of an issue with the accelerator pedal. Strangely enough, after admitting their mistake and eating humble pie (so to say), their reputation only grew.
They are certainly more reputable than Volkswagen who tried to do the opposite.
Staying with our hypothetical situation from the previous lesson; if your warehouse is truly a health and safety minefield, you need to acknowledge this at once, tell everyone that this was a mistake, that you care about the employees (of course) and that you will immediately start to remedy the situation.
Lesson 3 - Get ready for the spotlight
Regardless of the level of the leadership position that you hold in a company, from CEO of a big enterprise to a manager in a freshly formed startup, people are watching you. First of all, your team is constantly looking at you for guidance, inspiration and support. Then there is the public, as a leader you are the face of the company you work for, this means that you will be congratulated for the good thing and crucified for the bad. It comes with the responsibility.
Being prepared for these types of situations is an essential part of being a good business leader. The sooner you realize that you will be constantly on display, that the way you behave, address others and deal with situations is going to be analyzed and scrutinized, the better prepared you will be for all the tasks, avoiding PR disasters along the way.
We will once again imagine that you are the leader of that "safety from hell" paper company. Imagine now that once the news breaks, you are accosted by the local television station and you immediately start sweating and stuttering. No one is going to believe a single word you say. A prepared leader is a calm leader.
Lesson 4 - Get to know your company
Taking on a leadership role in any company you have to do a lot of research on the politics and values the company is being led by. It is imperative that your personal values are aligned with those of your company. If this is not the situation, it is highly recommendable for you not to take the job, and to try to find a company which is a more suitable fit.
Some might ask, what do the values have to do with leadership quality? Well if you do not believe in that what your company or organization is doing, you will not be able to lead it authentically, and that often leads to major PR disasters. No one wishes to follow a leader who doesn't believe in what they are preaching.
Following the lessons presented in this article there is a high chance that you will not end up a PR disaster for your company. However, every good leader needs also to be prepared for failure. That might be the most important lesson. In the business world even the best worked through plans can end up in disaster.
The important thing here is to remain calm, do damage control and avoid becoming a toxic boss who will only further harm their company down the line.
Written By: James D. Burbank