VerticalResponse Blog

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Thanks to today’s voracious 24/7 news cycle and the rapid-fire pitch of social media, we can’t help but become transfixed when something spirals out of control into a public relations crisis in front of our eyes. During the last couple of weeks, the chicken sandwich chain Chick-fil-A found itself in the hot seat thanks to controversial statements about gay marriage made by its COO and president. Just a few months ago, the beef industry got publicly slimed for using questionable meat filler in beef products. And before that, Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s reputation was seriously tarnished for cutting its funding to Planned Parenthood.

No business ever wants a PR disaster on its hands. But it could happen to anyone, anytime. And while you might not be as well-known or have as many customers as AirBnB (remember the customer whose apartment was destroyed?) or Blackberry (remember the days-long email outage?), your company still has a public face. So, you need to be prepared for anything that puts your business or brand in a negative light.

Here are five things to help avoid a public relations firestorm:

1. Have a PR and social media policy in place, stat.

Regardless of the size of your business or organization, you need to lay down some ground rules in case of a potential PR issue – because it will probably happen when you least expect it (like in the wee hours of the night, or when you’re on vacation). Who gets contacted and how? Who’s accountable for what? Who’s allowed to speak on behalf of the company, and through what channels?

If you’re a small mom-and-pop shop, all of those responsibilities might fall on you – but your employees still need to know that, and they need to know what they should or should not do during a PR emergency. If you’ve got different departments, you should at the very minimum involve people in your marketing/communications, customer service, IT/website and legal teams. For guidelines on what to include in a PR and social media plan, here are some helpful sources:

2. Own up to the issue ASAP.

If people are saying negative things about you and word is spreading, you need to address the issue head-on, quickly. The worst thing to do in this social media-charged world – other than saying “no comment,” which essentially means, “Yup, I’m guilty as charged” – is to stay mum on the issue or problem. Every minute of silence is an opportunity for people to make assumptions – often unfavorable – and fuel the firestorm.

3. Anticipate where people are and have a response ready.

Post an update to your website and on any major public-facing communications channel you own, including social media. (As of this writing, Chick-fil-A still hasn’t addressed the issue on their corporate website and has posted just one official statement on their Facebook Page.) If it’s an issue that directly impacts customers, record a message on your customer support phone line. If you don’t have enough information available to give people the answer they want, say that you’re looking into it and will let them know as soon as you do. People expect immediate feedback, and this can help manage expectations.

4. Be frank and sincere.

These days, no one cares or believes in “official statements” full of corporate-speak and canned talking points. It’s all about the one-on-one communication that happens with those they trust, and you need to regain that trust. How? By letting them know 1) that you understand why they’re upset, and 2) what you’re doing to resolve the issue. If your company made a mistake, a heartfelt, straightforward apology can go a long way. Don’t over-promise, but do let them know what you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

5. Monitor the conversation.

If you aren’t already tracking mentions about your company online and on social media, this is another reason why you should start. Angry customers aren’t just talking to you on the channels you own; they’re sharing with their friends and followers, too. How do you find out what they’re saying? For free, you can set up Google Alerts, use Twitter’s advanced search feature and Facebook’s native search feature for public posts. While you don’t necessarily need to inject yourself into or respond to every single conversation, you do need to know what people are saying so you can craft your outbound communications appropriately. Monitoring conversations also helps you identify your key critics and influencers.

Hopefully you’ll never have to put your crisis communications plan in action, but, like any disaster, you’ll feel much better knowing you’re prepared.

© 2012 – 2018, Contributing Author. All rights reserved.

  • Roger

    kerfuffle: A disorderly outburst or tumult
    Look up the synonyms, I think Connie was on point with this helpful post and using Cathy’s company and the others as examples of what could happen to us and it may not always be positive or negative. You never know for sure!

  • Brian

    Kudos to Connie for allowing all these comments to be displayed that disagree with her take on this issue. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned by marketing entities as well. I wouldn’t call this a kerfuffle per se, but you get my point. 😉 In any case, thanks for allowing opposing views to be expressed.

  • Peter Levarre-Waters

    Some people just don’t “get it”, Chick-fil-a (I live on the other side of the world and a.don’t know who they are & b. really don’t care) Are being used as an example, not focus of debate on the rights and wrongs of relationships. I have copied (pinched) your great points and forwarded them to my branch manager.
    WE have had exactly the same problem (lack of action) previously, in relation to an action we took and I hope next time we have to do the same thing we will be able to handle it better with these great “tips” … guys & gals, gays & straights “get with the programme” this is here to help us and we should be extremely grateful that “someone” is able to spend their time passing on FREE help and advise to those who are willing to learn, comments are always necessary but if you think YOU can do better..then DO it yourself and find out how unappreciated you are.
    All I can finish with is “Thanks to Vertical Response”

  • Zhenya Delate

    Ok, so I’m reading the comments and the themes I see re-iterated are:
    a.) the fact that is was a PR boon, not a disaster
    b.) Cathy’s fact’s are maybe mixed up
    c.) Chik-fil-A’s COO didn’t bash gays, he merely supported the concept of the “traditional family”.
    I get it, looks like it was positive for marketing purposes.
    My question is – and I haven’t seen anyone yet here ask it and I wonder why — where does Chik-fil-A source their chicken meat? I searched the internet and discovered the company has already anticipated these questions – but the words are carefully crafted like political-speak where you make mild statements that don’t really say anything. I wish more people would look at this as an opportunity to also call attention to the animal rights issue that happens with mass market fast food. Honestly, I think that’s the real sin here. Imho it’s the supporters of cruel meat harvesting practices that should be shamed. And that’s my strong stance on the matter.

  • Sungmoyle

    Thanks for weighing in. My intent with this post was not to take a side, but to use the Chick-fil-A situation as a reminder that businesses large and small need to be prepared for the unexpected, with tips on how to handle things if they want to change the tenor of the situation. I apologize if that was not clear. As several have mentioned here, Chick-fil-A did say they had a record sales day and yes, that’s great for any business. Only time will tell what the long-term impact of all this will be. – Connie

  • Francisco Navas

    The only i know, is for the last 5 days everytime i pass in front of a Chick Fill A a cross street of my house is packed, full of a lot of people showing (buying) support to the chain. $$$$$$
    Good strategy to increase sells. Brilliant!!!

  • Vince

    Hi Connie, thanks for the post. It is definitely good to have a pr policy in place when things don’t go well. Good tips.
    However, I would add that it’s more important to know who you are, what your values are, and to be clear on them when the occasion calls for it, rather than trying to minimize or hide who you are for fear of alienating clients.
    If clients are alienated because you didn’t live up to your business promises or did something wrong, that’s one thing, and the issue(s) should be addressed.
    If, however, they are alientated as in the case of Chic-Fil-A because they don’t like the beliefs held by it’s owners there is nothing on earth that can be done to pacify or retain that customer. That’s why we have free private enterprise.
    Finally, as with any moral belief, there are going to be two sides to the coin – your mention of Chic-fil-a’s stances and the Susan G. Komen stances in a negative perspective leave a little to be desired.
    Dan Cathy didn’t say anything about gay “marriage” at all. He did voice support for the Biblical definition of marriage, and alluded to the rightness of commitment within that union – he should be reported as such.
    Susan G. Komen first came under fire because they were giving donations to Planned Parenthood, NOT because they weren’t. They THEN got “tarnished” as you put it by the pro-abortion community and subsequently resumed their donations to PP. They should be reported as such.
    In the case of Chic-fil-a, Dan Cathy and Chic-fil-a have stood by their principles, which is exactly what they should do – and they have made it clear that their business doors are open to all and all are to be treated with respect.
    Susan G. Komen messed up because they tried to ride the fence – in reality they should just have admitted from the beginning that they supported Planned Parenthood and didn’t intend to stop. Those are the organization’s values. If they loose business as a result so be it.
    We need business leaders to take a stand for the principles they espouse whatever the belief. I’m weary of people shifting in the wind pandering to every new opinion that rises from the public.
    Be accurate when talking about other people. It’s better in the long run!

  • Duke

    Speaking of being in the “hot seat” — What “controversial statements about gay marriage made by its COO and president” are you referring to?
    I know your post is about PR not politics, but please check your facts — The COO and President did NOT say anything about gay marriage. Really! It was reported by some that he did, but he didn’t… He spoke about what his religious belief a “traditional family” was, but said nothing about gays…
    The way I see it, you went with your comment where you didn’t need to go AND made a factual misstatement too.
    Besides, as far as the PR aspect of this situation: This was the best thing that happened to Chick-Fill-A. They got the best coverage in the media, and revenues jumped 3-fold. Hardly the “Hot Seat” 🙂

  • Bill Samuel

    Good advice, but a factual error. In fact, nothing was said about gay marriage in the controversial interview. So a key element to remember is that the media may give out false information related to your group at any time, and that false information may spread rapidly and have enormous consequences.

  • Joe Martinico

    Hi Connie,
    Good post, but I don’t Chick-fil-A ended up doing all that bad. They ended up with a record day of sales and record support.
    At the same time, I heard that they’ve indicated they don’t want to remain in the situation they are in; that the owners would like to leave the debate in the public realm.
    It’s no fun being in the middle of a public firestorm.

  • robert stoltz

    Is this a backdoor attempt to slam Chick-fil again?
    The reason this situation got so blown up publicly was more due to the irresponsible and unwarranted public statements made by three pandering mayors, than to the position expressed by the business owner.
    Why choose this case as an example for your article anyway? It turned out to be a complete win for Chick-fil, didn’t it?
    The aftermath is a win for all of us too in the sense that there’s no crowing on the part of chick-fil, and not a peep on the part of the loud mouth mayors and biased MSM.

  • Joanne Davis

    Chick FilA did not make controversial statements about gay marriage. Re-read Cathy’s statement.

  • Brian

    Mr Cathy owned up to the issue as you suggest in step 2, was frank and sincere as you suggest in step 4, and even thouhg some were upset, it wasn’t a disaster. For many folks, the Komen Foundation’s tarnishing actually came when they backed down from what they had “owned up to” bowing to pressure that came in response to their frank and seemingly sincere decision.
    Perhaps what you’re really suggesting is that we not have or display values that offend anyone. Good luck with that. 🙂

  • Reed

    What an out of touch title. While I’m personally pro gay marriage, I equally respect those for whom the word “marriage” holds a very specific religious meaning and definition. Also, while I disagree with Chick-Fil-A’s COO’s opinion, I absolutely respect his right to have an opinion and state it.
    The Company had it’s largest sales day in history b/c of people who support and agree with the position (their target demo as an openly Christian organization) but also got support from people like me who defend a person’ right to free speech.
    Considering Chick-fil-a is an openly Christian organization, this isn’t a PR kerfuffle or nightmare; it’s a PR dream! It IS however a PR nightmare for Rham Emanual and other government officials who have stated they will abuse their governmental powers to punish the company for the personal views of one pf its executives. That is blatantly against the second amendment. You can boycott, you can encourage others to eat elsewhere, but government shall not infringe on a person’s right to free speech, which is what the Chicago governor is doing.
    Besides, why not change the zoning to kick all Christian churches out of Chicago – or at least Catholic ones? It’s ludicrous for Emanual to chose that stance which leads to my point specific to your article – your title statement shows just how out of touch vertical response is with the marketplace and high-level marketing approaches that put objectives before strategy having the one lead the other.
    When a fiscally conservative, socially liberal atheists-leaning agnostic like myself defends the rights of a Christian organization and its executives, it’s an indication of how this is about more than the context of what was said. Someone would say my (and others far more liberal people and organizations like the ACLU) defense of Chick-Fil-A’s COO is very out of place or even odd. I’d say it’s out of place for anyone who’s truly open minded to not defend free speech for all – not just anyone who agrees with us.
    This drives to the heart of why the Chick-Fil-A “PR Kerfuffle” is anything but. People from the right, left and in between have supported that organization’s leadership in defense of the second amendment. They’ve voted with their dollars and they will vote in Chicago and around the county come November, behind a curtain in privacy to do the same (arguably unfortunately or fortunately depending on your political leanings).
    Regardless of your stance politically, the marketing/PR perspective is clear – this is NOT a PR nightmare.
    Get in touch with reality and what marketing is for Vertical Response – to create raving fans, to connect with your target audience, to drive new customers to your organization… to grow revenue and sales. This PR has done that in spades for Chick-fil-a rallying their target demo to almost fanatical support with their dollars while successfully pulling in people well beyond their core demo. What more could you ask of your PR initiatives?

  • Chet King

    Chick-Fil-A’s controversial statement brought them more publicity and business than they ever could have gotten by being silent on this issue. The owner simply stated what the Bible clearly teaches and Christian rallied around him. Chick-Fil-A now has more supporters than ever before.

  • Ben


    Thanks for the helpful tips. However, I think it’s a little unfair to assume that the Chick-fil-a situation was a “PR disaster,” or that the result was ultimately bad for the brand. I guess if good PR is the filter by which you judge any decisions made by your business, then yes, this was a disaster. But if you choose to run your business differently and not hide your beliefs about the good of society, then something that might come across as a “PR disaster” is actually a “PR success,” because you used your PR for your desired intention.
    On a different note, you also mention Susan G Komen as an example. That wasn’t a PR Disaster, their statement explained exactly why they were going to stop giving to PP. The disaster that followed was intended by the media which ignore the reasons given by Komen. The only way the “disaster” could have been avoided would have been if Komen would have never revoked funding. It didn’t matter how they did it, the media was going to pounce on them no matter how they did it because they do it to anyone who expresses viewpoints in opposition to theirs.

  • Martin

    Actually, Chick-Filet broke sales records on Appreciation Day because they had the courage to be frank and stand their ground on their convictions. If being true to one’s convictions is controversial, our American freedoms are in trouble.
    Their courage and frankness is very refreshing in this current atmosphere of media bias and conformity.
    The news media defines “controversy” according to their own political agenda, and the public support for the company was ignored because it did not fit in with mainstream media bias.
    When the media has a prejudice against certain views, there isn’t much PR can do to counteract the bigotry because the mass media spin things however they please.
    It’s a sad state of affairs when some companies are attacked and censored for stating an opinion.

  • Rev John J Wilson

    Fortunately, The American people supported them in droves allowing them to have the best sales in history. I think it is far better to state the truth and stand by it.

  • Brian Toole

    Great article on being prepared. The only thing I disagree with is your assessment of the Chick-fil-A “kerfuffle”. The president expressed an opinion during an interview for a magazine. He has every right to not only have that view but to share it. If you as a customer don’t agree with his view you have the right to not shop at his business. The only thing wrong with this entire ordeal is the fact that the traditional view of marriage has all of sudden become “controversial”. If Google can launch a “Legalize Love” campaign, why can’t the COO of Chick-fil-A express his opinion about traditional marriage without it becoming a national kerfuffle?

  • Mark S

    How is a huge increase in business. Becoming a top Follow on Facebook and re-establishing your niche with free press a disaster for Chick-fil-A? This is no different than GoDaddy being controversial.

  • Russ Sharrock

    I agree there should always be a PR policy in place, but considering that Chick-Fil-A broke their record for sales in one day, it doesn’t seem like things went too bad for them. Not to mention the nationwide support they garnered. Sometimes national press can be good.

  • Nina Rios

    In regard to the comment: “During the last couple of weeks, the chicken sandwich chain Chick-fil-A found itself in the hot seat thanks to controversial statements made by its COO and president. … So, you need to be prepared for anything that puts your business or brand in a negative light.”
    Just for the record. I don’t think the circumstances put Chick-fil-A in a negative light at all. On the contrary, I can’t imagine anything more positive.

  • Eric

    Based on the support they received and the record breaking sales numbers, I question whether it was a PR disaster or not. I suppose it would depend on which side of the issue you fall on.

  • Michael Grohs

    I don’t believe that the Chick-fil-A was a PR disaster. The company always made its religious believes part of their corporate identity and marketing, to some extent it is their way to distinguish the brand among other fast food brands. I am not entering the debate whether this is good or bad from a moral point of view, however from a marketing perspective it seemed to be a successful and cost effective campaign to rally their target clients. The Chick-fil-A case marks the beginning of a new era in marketing using religion and social believes as part of advertisement. Amazon already followed Chick-fil-A’s example and it is to be expected many more will do the same.

  • MichaelPedone

    Ummm… I wouldn’t call it a PR disaster. They couldn’t buy the type of media coverage they got from them expressing their view point (which was done on a christian radio show…. it’s not like they went out of their way to push on someone)
    Sales went through the roof!
    I’m betting Subway wishes they spoke up first!

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