HomePublic RelationsHandle a Public Relations Error Like a Pro

Every business makes a mistake now and then. If you’re lucky, only you will notice. Some mistakes, however, affect other people, and you have to go public with the mistake – and the remedy.

You’ll need to take responsibility, apologize and demonstrate diplomacy. One of the best places to do this is on your website. You can create a link on your home page to a special page where you set out the issue and your remedy for it. You can also link to the special page from your Facebook page, Twitter account, and from any other social media site where your company has a presence. You should respond swiftly and sincerely, whatever the problem:

  • Product defect
  • Infringement of copyright or image ownership
  • Partnership snafu
  • Misunderstanding of patent rights
  • Financial reporting oversight
  • Using your website and social media accounts, you can get your response out within just a few hours. That’s important. A delayed response leaves room for any detractors to comment first. You want to get out in front of them with your message.


Be Honest with Your Agency

While you certainly can craft your message yourself, and make the media calls, it can be very helpful to work with a professional who has experience in crisis situations. If you’re not working with a public relations (PR) firm already, you might contact a firm specializing in crisis management.

If agency services are not in the budget, carefully follow the tips below. Try to maintain an objective stance, just as an outside firm would. It’s natural to feel upset when things have gone wrong, but don’t make decisions based upon those emotions – you could end up causing even further damage to your reputation and business relationships.

If you are working with an agency, tell your contact the whole story, down to every last detail. You might feel embarrassed, but your PR partner needs to know what to expect, so he or she can craft an appropriate strategy. Remember, your PR partner is on your side.

It may help you to remember that no matter what you or your company has done, someone else has done the same thing, only worse. Your PR partner will have navigated similar situations before, and will use this experience to your advantage. They’ll know how to keep a consistent, controlled message during the crisis.

Last, but not least, credibility is essential to a trusting media exchange. Many public relations professionals have usurped this very important fact in the pressure to deliver results for their clients. It is difficult to fess up to not having the perfect story, reference, or product to conform to a big feature in a high circulation publication that is right in the target market. The loss of exposure will be short term, but at the time it seems monumental. Don’t make the client fit the article, it will sting long after the story is printed. Once you have betrayed an editor’s trust by stretching the story or skewing the data, you and your client are finished and any future coverage is not looking rosy.

Plan Ahead
No one likes planning for mistakes – but it’s a wise move. Long before a crisis hits your company, you should develop a process for handling one.

What are the problems that could come up for your type of company? What should you do in each case? Have a written plan of action for any scenario that may be possible. This will help you prepare the message for your website and social media communications, as well as comments for any reporters or bloggers who may contact you for comment.

Avoid Problems with Good Practices
Make sure you understand the basics of copyright, image ownership and other protections to avoid some of the most common mistakes people make on websites and in print materials.

  • Don’t use images owned by other people or companies without permission. If you want to be completely safe, use images available under Creative Commons licenses. You can find images available under CC license by using the advanced search options on Google or Flickr, or by searching Wikimedia Commons.
  • If you quote any words other than your own, attribute them to the author. It’s best to ask if you’re going to use more than just a brief quote.
  • If you think your company might be using someone else’s idea improperly, consult an attorney who is familiar with your field.


Check Your Liability
If you make an error, seek legal counsel to check whether you or your company has any liability. Often, you won’t face any legal peril, as long as you correct it promptly and properly. Most people respond positively when a company quickly and publicly takes responsibility for its misstep. Litigation can be avoided if people work together in good faith to resolve the problem.

Keep a consistent message and voice
Assign a spokesman to deal with the crisis and defer all questions to this person. He or she should stick to prepared statements as much as possible, but should also be empowered to respond to any unexpected shifts in the situation. Of course, you need to know that the spokesman has the wisdom and experience to respond quickly and appropriately.

Be Human! Reach Out to the Wronged Person
Remember, the personal touch can make a huge difference to someone who may be hurt or angry. Hearing you acknowledge their feelings and taking responsibility can make the other person feel good about putting the whole thing to rest as quickly as possible.

  • Take pre-emptive action, even before the injured party may be aware. For example, if you discover that your company has used a copyrighted image on your website without permission, it’s good to take the image down and immediately contact the owner. If you still want to use the image, ask the owner for permission and for his or her terms of use.
  • Make a personal call to the head of the organization that has been violated. Follow up with an email if you do not connect right away, and request an appointment to speak directly with that person.
  • State the error, apologize sincerely and offer a solution or remedy. Be open to listening to how the other person feels, and be prepared for them to offer a different solution or remedy.
  • Offer to include their PR team and other departments as needed in the plan. They may need to address their own customers, investors, employees or other interested parties, and it’s best if your two messages are compatible.


Apologize Publicly Across Different Media – Including Your Website
Post a public acknowledgment of the mistake on your website as quickly as possible. Praise the injured party for their accommodation and understanding.

Use the immediacy of social networks to get your message out fast, far and wide. The apology announcement will not only show people you’re sincere – it can also give both companies more website traffic, as a public apology will direct new visitors to both websites. If statements on both company’s websites link to each other, that can give both companies a boost in search rankings, too.

Learn From the Error
When the crisis is over, don’t just heave a sigh of relief. Educate your team and create or modify policies and processes to make sure proper precautions are taken, and that all parties are covered the next time around.

Leverage the Opportunity to Connect
Now that the mistakes are behind you, take the opportunity to refer business, extend a lunch invitation, or even partner with your new contact – the person you injured to begin with. Turn an initially bad situation into a win for both companies. You won’t be sorry.

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