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How Brands Should Prepare For and Respond to PR Crises

Bad things happen to good brands. 

It could be the result of sloppy customer service, or an errant manager calling the cops in a bad case of racial profiling, or even a second amendment zealot walking into a store carrying a gun.

Sometimes the product fails. Sometimes it’s a tragic and unforeseeable catastrophe

Brands can’t stop bad news. But as we’ve said before, firms can implement a strategy for immediate response, to mitigate brand damage as the crisis unfolds — but in fact that’s not enough. Brands must work on their defenses before disaster strikes, then use that preparation as a base for rebuilding brand reputation after the bad news passes. Do that right in the weeks and months following the catastrophe, and you can help make sure the bad news never outweighs the good in the next Google search. 

First, the Storm 

Brand defense begins with brand reputation.  “Look at your web presence as a whole,” said John Gottschall, CEO at the Internet reputation specialists Neumann Paige. “The online brand is what the first page of a Google search result looks like. That is your online reputation.”  

If the brand has already built a major presence on the web, then bad news is likely to feature at least as prominently as good when Google returns a search result. If a web presence is lacking, bad news fills the vacuum.  

bad news early helps. “Every brand should consider implementing brand monitoring tools [like Meltwater or Brandwatch], to identify a crisis at its earliest stage.” said Anthony Will, CEO and co-founder at Reputation Resolutions. “By getting ahead of the narrative shaped by third parties, brands can have a strong influence on the public’s perceptions of the crisis at hand.” 

Crisis management is the key. Eric Schiffer, CEO of Reputation Management Consultants, described the process this way:

  • Determine the cause of the problem
  • Find out the facts, and know if the problem is being driven by your company or others
  • If the problem starts with you, fix it. Then communicate the benefits to begin the trust building process for your brand.  

“[The] first step is to determine the facts behind the hit. You must deal with facts.” Schiffer continued. Credibility is gained by being transparent and sharing the facts, because if something is true, it cannot be debunked, he explained. 

Then, the flood 

If the crisis is a flood, then Google is the floodplain. Bad news will fill a lot of space in any Google search. But in the weeks that follow, one can take steps to drain the floodwaters and rebuild the brand. That means getting the bad news off of the first page Google serves up.  

To be clear, you can’t outfox Google, but you can work with Google  if you understand how Google works. 

Google’s search algorithm is multi-factored, taking into account your own web site, news, reviews, links from other sources, user intent, user satisfaction. A search of your web site will return a variety of hits from a gamut of sources. No one but Google knows how many factors are modeled in its search algorithm. Digital marketing vendor Blue Corona estimates about 200, but even then, the algorithm is updated periodically.  

“What you do is, you create content about the brand, and promote that content until it rises to the first page,”  Gottschall said. About 95 percent of the public never looks beyond the first page of a Google search, so pushing bad news off of that first page removes  95 percent of the views,  Gottschall observed. 

Doing this will require sound content strategy, and a team of writers to generate positive content, Will added. Then you need a PR team that can place those articles with sources Google ranks as credible. Follow that with an SEO team that knows how to rank new and existing content sustainably, he added. 

“Generally, a mix of press releases, social sites (web 2.0 properties), interviews, guest posts, and articles published on credible web properties will be enough to take control over the first page of Google and suppress the negative news.” Will said.  

“The crisis is date-stamped,” Schiffer said. “It’s like a storm. At some point, the weather will change.” 

Drying Out 

“Companies must have a crisis communications and management plan in place. If a crisis is not handled appropriately, it can have catastrophic effects on the company’s brand image and ability to generate new business.” Will said. “We recommend clients create a plan involving all relevant internal stakeholders, practice the plan, listen to their customers, and online chatter, and be ready to implement the plan in the event of a crisis.” Of
course, brand defense and rescue will take up budget, time and resources. The cost of not doing being prepared, however, can be consequential.  

Gottschall‘s warning was more stark. “By 2022, all brands must manage their online reputations.” Those that don’t will be out of business, he added.

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