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Getting over a gaffe: Guest view

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Natonia Samchuck, public relations director, GRIT Marketing Group
Natonia Samchuck, public relations director, GRIT Marketing Group - (Photo / )

In today's world of fast-moving, 24-hour news cycles, one misstatement from company leadership or an employee can quickly send a brand into cleanup mode. Even companies that have a detailed crisis communications plan in place are vulnerable to a leader or employee with a loose lip or someone who believes in the notion of being “off the record.” The truth is, taking back words is like putting toothpaste back in the tube – nearly impossible. What is said matters.

Whether an employee or company leader misspoke during an official interview, thought they were “off the record” during a conversation with a reporter, or made an inappropriate comment in a private setting that quickly went public, a few misspoken words are often enough to send any brand into crisis mode. In that case, there are a few key steps to take:

Evaluate the crisis. Emotions may run high during a crisis. Remove all emotion and focus on the facts. Carefully evaluate what was said and to whom. Was the comment a simple transfer of misinformation, such as incorrect data, or is this an inappropriate comment that should have never been made? This step is critical to determine if a brand is in crisis mode, pre-crisis prevention mode or simply dealing with a situation where additional education is needed. If in pre-crisis mode, the next step may be to wait to see if the comment “dies” or begins to spread.

Consider activating the crisis communications team. Don’t know who is on the team? Then a crisis communications plan may be needed. Companies that are prepared for a crisis will have identified specific people as a part of this critical team before a crisis hits.

Correct inaccurate information. If the situation is as simple as a spokesperson providing inaccurate information to a reporter, contact the reporter directly and ask for a correction in coverage. Just remember, the media are not obligated to issue a correction and once the information is out publicly, it’s toothpaste out of the tube – hard to take back. Avoid this by making sure the spokesperson is trained and prepared before future interviews.

Consider cutting ties. If the situation involves public, extremely inappropriate behavior that breaks a company’s code of conduct, it may be time to get the legal team and human resources involved. In these situations, the only resolution may be to put the employee on leave and/or to terminate employment. It is critical that the communications team, HR, legal and other company leadership work together to ensure the company and the brand is legally protected as much as possible. In this scenario, brands often issue public statements to local media as well as on social media. These statements give as much information as possible without violating any policies regarding releasing personal employee information. Carefully crafted statements are often used internally and externally to control messaging during these times.

Open the flood gates. In extreme situations, brands that are not cutting ties with the employee or leader who made the misstatement may offer specific media outlets a one-on-one interview to clear the air and set the record straight. Although this is an option, it’s a high-risk move that requires extreme preparation and training of the spokesperson prior to execution. In this scenario, expect that the spokesperson will be on the “hot seat,” no questions will be off limits and they will be judged by the public for their answers. This option can quickly make or break a brand and isn’t for the faint of heart.

Throughout any crisis situation, brands should carefully monitor media coverage and social media activity to correct misinformation and gauge public sentiment. In addition, situations like this may bring to light the need for additional training for spokespersons or even various levels of leadership and employees. Remember, the best preparation happens long before a crisis ever takes place.

Natonia Samchuck is the public relations director at GRIT Marketing Group in York where she uses public relations strategies and tactics to build strong brand reputations. She can be reached at natonia@creategrit.com.

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