You’ve seen this play out countless times in action movies: Someone must defuse a bomb as the clock ticks down. The only way to prevent a certain disaster is to cut one of the device’s distinctively colored wires. You have to decide right now—which one do you clip?
The classic wire dilemma trope is crisis management in a nutshell. Public relations professionals spend their days defusing proverbial bombs. Proactive PR strategies are designed to not only win positive earned media coverage, they also help protect brands from public relations crises. Those tactics include:
But even the most well-prepared brands can still face a PR crisis through no fault of their own, and history shows why it’s so important to face a problem head on.
What Is a PR Crisis?
Take Tylenol, for example. In September of 1982, an unknown perpetrator tampered with bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol throughout the Chicago metro area. Seven people died of cyanide poisoning, and the Tylenol brand name was transformed overnight from a metonym for pain relief to a grim headline.
Thanks to a smart decision by Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson, however, the brand has since become a textbook example of how to best respond to a PR crisis. The company issued a multimillion dollar nationwide recall of Tylenol products, partnered with municipal and federal law enforcement agencies to better understand how the contamination had occurred and developed tamper-resistant packaging in partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Through clear communication with the public and responsive action, the company was able to regain consumers’ trust of its many products, including Tylenol.
What To Do When Your Brand is Facing a PR Crisis
A PR crisis as serious and troubling as the “Chicago Tylenol Murders” is rare. But it’s become a classic example of crisis communications because J&J’s response clearly illustrates the power of decision-making when your brand narrative is spinning out of control.
In fact, the word “crisis” has etymological roots in an ancient root word for “sieve,” suggesting navigating a tough situation requires quickly assessing all your available options. During the Renaissance, the then-emerging field of medicine gave “crisis” a new connotation: a crucial turning point in the progression of an illness. Will the patient live or die? Will the bomb go off? It often comes down to the choices we make in our most uncertain moments.
6 PR Tips for Crisis Communications
So, how can brands navigate a PR crisis when it comes? You can tell how much we live and breathe our public relations work from the amount of overlap between Grasslands’ core values as a Journalism-Minded Agency™ and the best tactics for crisis communications:
- Go for it. “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Cameron Crowe might have misattributed this Basil King line to Goethe in Almost Famous, but whatever the provenance, it isn’t bad advice in a crisis. It takes bravery to fight fires, especially when you’re also handling a bruised ego, trying to carry on all your usual responsibilities and draw actionable lessons from the feedback you’re receiving. Be bold in your response—and make sure your team is on the same page as you.
- Hold your own. In an era when consumers prize purpose-driven brands, accountability is more than just a “cancel culture” buzzword. Your target audience judges how well brands align with their personal values in part by clocking how capable those brands are of taking responsibility as a crisis unfolds. When a brand holds itself accountable and shows it has genuinely learned from and metabolized its mistakes, it deflates the haters.
- Share the win. Michelle Obama knows a thing or two about public relations, and her “when they go low, we go high” catchphrase is the proof. While owning up to a misstep and taking accountability are important components of crisis communications, so is sharing your brand’s wins. Often the best antidote to bad press is to get a more positive story out there ASAP. Leverage social proof like testimonials, case studies and strategic partnerships to show there are plenty of people willing to put their name behind yours.
- Sweat the details. A PR crisis is a funny thing—you finally have that boost in brand recognition you’ve been praying for, but for all the wrong reasons. Still, your brand is under scrutiny like never before, and it isn’t the time for bad optics, a typo in your public apology or a tone-deaf response that fails to recognize the harm done. When you’re deciding what to look for in a cannabis PR agency, look for one that intimately understands how journalists do their best work—and matches the same quality standards.
- Figure it out. Remember all those action movies? The hero always figures it out. Brands don’t have the same reassurance, of course. But when you allow proven processes, solutions and results to shape your crisis communications strategy, you’re that much closer to quickly figuring out the best move. Ask yourself what SOPs are already in your team’s muscle memory and what playbook you’ll use to defuse a bomb.
- Over-the-top hospitality. At its core, hospitality is all about building community. And there is no time a brand needs community more than when the shit has hit the fan. A PR crisis is exactly when you need to reassure your core audience—not only to keep on-the-fence consumers from defecting but also to remind your brand partners why you’re working together. Don’t fall into green-, pink- or rainbow-washing, either. Show your community that you’re there for them every day, not just during Pride Month, Earth Day, Juneteenth or when your brand is in the doghouse.
We’re always ready to talk through your brand’s unique needs and pain points to find a custom solution. But if you aren’t ready to start that conversation yet, check out our cannabis public relations services and cannabis marketing services to learn more about how we transform brands like yours with our proven process.