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Sound the Alarm: Best Practices in the Face of a PR Crisis

Published on March 24, 2016 at 8:30 p.m.
by Leah Tobak.

Most companies face at least one crisis during their lifespan: Just when everything seems to be going swimmingly, the stroke of a key or the wording on a product sounds the alarm. A PR crisis sets into full swing. The past year has been no exception for these instances, in many cases on a very large scale. So how did major companies handle their PR crises and manage to reach the other side with their heads above water? Let’s take a closer look.

Let it play out
If you’ll recall, the holiday season was abruptly halted this past year by an outcry of accusations that Starbucks took over as the new Grinch. A cup, usually presumed to be decorated for Christmas during this time of year, was released as a plain red cup. Customers were irate — was Starbucks stealing Christmas? Supporters were irate — has Christmas become as menial as the decoration of a cup? What was Starbucks to do?

Photo from
Photo from

Nothing. That’s what Starbucks did. Nothing. Starbucks allowed the controversy to play out. Twitter became a battlefield, Facebook a link-sharing war zone. All took sides on the great Starbucks debate. Within the week of release alone, “Starbucks” was mentioned on social media platforms more than 474,000 times, and “red cup” more than 61,000 times.

As Starbucks sat by, it received mass amounts of free publicity. Essentially everyone was talking about Starbucks. And when the world woke up one morning and forgot all about the little red cups, they did not forget their Grande Caramel Macchiatos.

In addition to the Starbucks debacle this past year, Chipotle landed in the hot seat for an outbreak of E. coli, ailing a number of customers. A restaurant’s worst nightmare is harmful food.

What is the most important concept to keep in mind when faced with a crisis? CEO of FoxFuel Creative Colton Mulligan said, “Transparency: that is the number one thing. What I would even call radical transparency.”

Originally, Chipotle was harshly criticized for not facing this situation head on and being open with the public.

In recent efforts though, Chipotle closed down for part of the day Feb. 8, thoroughly informing the public that it was reimplementing health regulations and providing extra training in light of the circumstances. During this time, Chipotle used a text message campaign that gave away free burritos, rewarding customers for their patience and inviting consumers to trust in its food again.

Analysts predict that Chipotle will fully recover from this downfall, as stocks already begin to rise again and few polled individuals’ opinions have been detrimentally impacted.

Poke fun at yourself or keep composure
While these two strategies may seem complete opposites, both came into play with the Miss Universe 2015 mishap.

After Steve Harvey announced the incorrect winner of the pageant, the evening ended beyond repair. Though he admitted and explained his mistake, that may be the only thing he did correctly in the public eye that night. Mulligan emphasized, “Timing is huge. The moment you know something is about to hit or did hit, you need to get something out. Own up and be honest immediately.” Still, criticism and ridicule went viral. At this point of seemingly no return, Harvey embraced it. First, he posted a photo Christmas Day wishing a “Merry Easter y’all.”


From there, Harvey’s recovery strategy caught on. T-Mobile even featured him making a card-reading blunder in its Super Bowl 50 commercial. Through apologizing, and then accepting his faux pas as laughable, Harvey managed to recover as gracefully as possible.

On the other end of this controversy, Miss Columbia, dealing with most likely the greatest disappointment of her life, maintained her composure and took the loss in stride. As she walked off stage, Miss Columbia humbly commented, “Everything happens for a reason, so I’m happy. Thank you for voting for me.” She also posted a positive Instagram, and let the issue lie — no passive aggressive tweets, no reality TV features.

Former Miss Teen Alabama Avery Cooper commends Miss Columbia’s positive reaction. “I think you should always comment when something happens because if you don’t fess up to your mistakes it makes you look dishonest,” Cooper said. Miss Columbia’s class throughout the controversy left her reputation untainted and allowed her to remain a role model for her country and women everywhere.

While there may not be one cookie cutter solution to all PR crises across the board, when approached with caution and sensitivity to your audience, not every misstep will sink the entire ship.

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