public relations

If your business lands in PR trouble, how do you respond?

CONTRIBUTING COLUMNISTJuly 26, 2010 

Ann Marie van den Hurk

The signs affixed to the front of BP service stations nationwide say it all: "Part of the community." As global companies like BP and Toyota combat calls for boycotts, consumers' outrage finds its way to the local business owner who had nothing to do with the problem but must deal with the consequences if a boycott begins.

For Toyota, the risk fell to the dealers. For BP, its service stations. In the future, it could be your business, and be warned, consumers have never held greater power than they do today. With social networks like Facebook and Twitter, a single voice can be amplified thousands of times greater than at any point in the past.

Boycotts can be started by individuals and can gain momentum by word of mouth in person and online. Often they are planned and promoted by organizations, which might have political or economic agendas. The communication methods used by these organizations or individuals are often very emotional, and their action causes the general public to take notice. Facts and rationality are often pushed aside.

With the calls continuing to boycott BP, what can service station owners who buy BP's gas but have no other connection to the petroleum giant do to keep business up?

Here are some steps they and any business owner can take:

■ Find out what the protesters really want. Does the boycott link to an unhappy individual, or was it organized by a group? You need to understand who the protesters are and what they really want. What's their motivation?

■ Get the facts out via all communications channels. This is when having a solid communications plan is essential.

■ Focus on the local aspect. You are a small business owner who lives and works in the community. Boycotts typically won't hurt the large corporations listed, but they can be devastating to locally owned franchises.

■ Highlight your good work within the community and all you do for the community by giving to charities, providing a needed service, and providing jobs not only for your employees but also to others who supply your business.

Remember, you are the face of your business. How you react is key. As the spokesperson, you should:

■ Know your organization's policies. If you are a franchise, get in contact with your corporate office's public relations team.

■ Stay within the scope of the issue at hand.

■ Tell the truth. Being transparent here is important.

■ Embody your business's identity and values.

The best way to deal with a boycott is to avoid it in the first place, but if you must deal with one, overcome the situation by showing:

■ Empathy and caring by acknowledging people's fears.

■ Competence and expertise by explaining the process in lay terms.

■ Honesty and openness by not being overly reassuring if the situation is not yet resolved.

■ Commitment and dedication by telling people how it is going to be resolved.

You can hope that with positive engagement, protesters will put down their signs and cross over the threshold to remain customers.

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an accredited public relations professional and is the ethics officer and accreditation chair of the Lexington-based Thoroughbred chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. She can be reached at ann@vandenhurkpr.com, or follow her on Twitter at @amvandenhurk.

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