A highly publicized rescue of a freezing animal. A bite, and subsequent euthanization of said animal. Outrage from legions of passionate rescue fans. Defense from passionate veterinarian fans. Justification from the governmental body carrying out the euthanization. A social media and TV news firestorm. Apologies. More outrage …

If you live in St. Louis, chances are you know the case I’m describing. While I’m not writing to offer my opinion on the subject itself, I am writing to assess the situation from a PR perspective. And this perspective isn’t solely about this particular incident. I’ve experienced many cases throughout the course of my career that have followed a similar pattern. Those that ended up positive followed three simple rules for avoiding negative publicity and a hit to the brand.

1. Take Five and Think

When faced with any public or media situation, there’s a good chance that emotions are quite high. And I would argue that you should always be thinking of the possibility of your actions turning into a media situation. Before you act, breathe, reflect and think. I don’t mean that you should sit on something for days (that’s bad), I’m talking about five minutes. Think about what you’re feeling and what you need in that moment. Articulate the message you want to send. Consider how that message may impact your audience and the public at large.

2. Avoid Hiding Behind “Procedure”

Procedures are in place for a reason. Most people understand this, and in general, we probably have a safer, better, easier environment in place because of the many procedures that have been implemented in society. However, procedures can be devoid of empathy and ultimately be seen as an excuse. Yes, a procedure must be followed (especially when there are laws dictating that procedure), and this is where a take-five-and-think approach comes in. How can you carry out your duty in a manner that takes all of the above into account, and allows you to operate in an empathetic manner?

3. Take Responsibility

Taking responsibility can be a frightening and vulnerable thing to do. Through this process, you open up about what you’re feeling and acknowledge either regret about the manner in which events unfolded, describe how things could have been done differently, anticipate any procedural changes to be made, or even apologize to the audience. This lifts the curtain of “procedure” separating you from the public and can gain goodwill in the end.

Case in Point

Years ago, Kolbeco managed PR for a school in the area. Most of our work revolved around building relationships with the media, highlighting great things the students were doing, spreading the word about accomplishments and milestones, and all around sharing positive news. Then the unthinkable happened.

An incident with a teacher hit the media. Within 30 minutes, reporters from every news channel had descended on the property.

We immediately sat down with the school president and other high level administrators to simply be with the situation for a moment. We all were as shocked as the public. That brief time of reflection allowed us to gather our thoughts and emotions so that we could be open in telling the story and sharing our feelings along the way.

At no time during the media interviews did the school president hide behind procedure. Instead, she put them out on the table and expressed her sadness and disappointment that even with procedures in place this had occurred. She was genuine, relatable, and discussed measures the school would be taking moving forward. She put herself in the place of everyone else and never separated herself from the public.

By following the steps above, the school maintained a positive public perception and minimized the creation of sides and public outcry.

We hope you never have to face a PR challenge, but if you do, these three simple steps can help you manage it. And of course, we’re always here to assist whether you simply need a sounding board and outside perspective, or full management of the situation. Our goal is to empower you to tell your story, build a strong connection with your audience, and maintain your brand reputation.

Article written by

partner/marketing visionary/Don Henley worshipper