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In the world of search results and social media, just one misstep or unfortunate event can quickly escalate into a full-blown public relations (PR) crisis, posing a real threat to your company’s reputation and bottom line.
That makes it essential to be prepared for potential PR problems and have a well-thought-out strategy to mitigate the fallout and protect brand integrity.
Below, I look at several high-profile PR cases that captured global attention and provide crucial lessons on how business leaders and entrepreneurs can navigate PR challenges without letting things spin out of control.
1. Tylenol’s swift crisis management
Over 40 years ago, Johnson & Johnson faced one of the most infamous PR crises in history, feeling the heat after seven people died from consuming cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. The company’s response to this PR nightmare set the gold standard for crisis management.
Rather than downplaying the issue, Johnson & Johnson acted swiftly, recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol and working closely with law enforcement and the media. By putting public safety first, the company demonstrated transparency and authenticity, rebuilding trust and restoring its reputation in the process.
Johnson & Johnson’s swift action and crisis response show the importance of prioritizing public safety, acting quickly, and communicating openly throughout a PR issue, particularly when mitigating reputation damage and regaining public trust.
2. United Airlines mishandled passenger incident
In 2017, United Airlines faced a PR disaster following the release of a video depicting a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked United flight. The viral incident quickly led to widespread public outrage and criticism of the airline’s handling of the situation. At first, United not only appeared to lack empathy but failed to address the situation appropriately, creating an even bigger problem for the leading airline and its carefully cultivated image.
Blowback from United’s initial response to this crisis helps illustrate the importance of tact, empathy, and genuine concern in the crisis management process, especially at the outset of the problem. Whether your brand is in the right or not, taking responsibility, apologizing sincerely, and outlining preventive measures you’ll take to avoid future issues is paramount.
3. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill
BP’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and subsequent oil spill significantly damaged the global energy brand’s image, quickly spiraling into a major reputational crisis with years-long impact. BP’s initial response was generally regarded as slow and defensive, leading to public outrage and accusations of negligence. The company struggled to contain the environmental damage and faced significant legal and financial repercussions well after the incident.
While the Deepwater Horizon disaster was unique in scale and scope, it helps show the need to proactively address crises, respond quickly and transparently, and collaborate with experts whenever needed to mitigate brand erosion and demonstrate accountability.
4. Equifax’s data breach fiasco
Major credit reporting agency Equifax suffered a massive data breach in 2017, exposing the sensitive personal data of millions of consumers across the country. A slow response to the crisis, coupled with inadequate communication and mishandling of the situation, resulted in severe damage to the company’s reputation, eventually leading to congressional hearings.
While the Equifax breach was significant in scale, data breaches at any level can create a PR nightmare for a business, sparking negative headlines that put the agency’s credibility on the hot seat. Combatting that lousy news and restoring trust with customers requires a careful and comprehensive crisis response effort that includes swiftly informing all affected parties and zeroing in on transparency, prompt communication, and clearly outlined remediation efforts and measures designed to prevent future breaches.
5. Boeing’s 737 Max crisis
Two deadly crashes between 2018 and 2019 involved Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, shining an unwanted spotlight on the aircraft manufacturer and its product development and oversight process. Unfortunately, the company’s initial response only seemed to make things worse, receiving significant criticism for lacking adequate transparency and accountability. The crisis led to a global grounding of the aircraft, a halt in production, and a loss of public confidence in the company.
Though extreme, Boeing’s 737 Max crisis serves as an object lesson to any brand coping with product-related issues, demonstrating the importance of prioritizing safety, cooperating with regulatory authorities, and communicating openly and honestly about the steps you’re taking to resolve the problem.
Learning from the past
High-profile PR crises offer invaluable lessons not just on managing your brand during challenging times but also on building a reputation management plan that limits the damage and keeps you in firm control throughout the process. Engaging in swift and transparent crisis management that prioritizes public safety, demonstrates empathy, and takes responsibility are all fundamental principles of crisis response that can help protect your brand while preventing things from worsening down the line.
Additionally, fostering a culture of integrity, implementing robust compliance and ethics programs, and prioritizing the well-being of employees and customers will contribute to building a resilient and trustworthy reputation.
By learning from the mistakes and successes of these high-profile cases, you can position your business to navigate crises gracefully, safeguarding your reputation and securing long-term success in a competitive business landscape.