3 Ways to Prevent PR Disasters

3 Ways to Prevent PR Disasters

Today’s guest post is written by Jenifer Olson.

I felt kind of sorry for the McDonald’s social media director who unleashed a backlash of negative press with the #McDStories hashtag promotion last month, as shared in this Mashable post. During my more than 20 years in marketing communications and PR, I’ve found experience can be a strong, if harsh, teacher.

That got me thinking about some of my most important communications lessons over the years and these three seem relevant to the McDonald’s issue:

1.     Never start a public conversation you’re unprepared to handle.

Early in my career, I wrote and delivered scripts to launch new products and promotions from stage during conferences. These meetings typically drew several thousand independent sales professionals from around the country.

One of the first lessons I learned was never ask an open-ended question from stage, especially if you aren’t 100% sure of the answer. Questions such as “Do you like it?” or “Isn’t it fabulous?” can backfire. There will always be people in your audience who don’t like it or think it’s terrible. So, unless you’re prepared for these people to hijack your message by shouting, “No, it sucks!” just don’t go there. It only takes one person to turn what you hoped would be positive PR into a disaster.

Takeaway: If it’s your stage, or a platform such as Twitter, don’t initiate conversations you’re not prepared to handle. In McDonald’s case, creating a #McDStories hashtag had the same effect as asking an open-ended question in a crowded auditorium.

2.     Get to know your audience using the ‘upside down’ approach.

This lesson came later in my career. As a new manager, I was asked to recommend improvements to an existing program and present them to field employees during break-outs at an upcoming conference. Over the next few weeks, I worked to understand the program and solicited input from both the corporate and field management teams. Based on my research, I came up with a plan I felt sure would increase profitability and make everyone happy.

Except it didn’t. It seems I missed talking with the one group of people I should have listened to from the very beginning—front-line employees responsible for servicing customers in the field. Relying on management perspectives alone was a mistake.

Since then, I’ve made it a point to understand views at all levels of an organization, using what I call an “upside down” approach. I talk with customers and customer-facing employees first, and then work my way back up through the organization. This helps me ferret out critical issues before they turn into problems.

Takeaway: If you’re a manager, and especially if you’re a social media manager, make it your business to understand the problems and perceptions of front-line employees and customers. If the McDonald’s social media director had fully grasped the consumer anger over the perceived nutritional content of the company’s menu, he might have decided against running a promotion with a McDStories hashtag just begging to be hijacked as a trending topic. 

3.     Listen and be responsive to your naysayers.

If you make a mistake, own it, apologize and take steps to fix it. Ignoring something only makes it worse. In #2 above, I knew by the end of the first session that I needed to change my presentation style from one of “Rah-Rah” to “We hear you.”

For the following sessions, I went off-script by telling the audience upfront I’d already heard and understood many of the objections to the original program from their fellow employees. I asked for their indulgence while I showed them how the new program might address some of these issues, and then told them I would answer any other questions after the presentation.

During the Q&A, I walked into the audience and invited people to ask questions using the microphone so everyone could hear and participate. If I knew the answer or had the authority to change something, I said so. If I didn’t know the answer, I said I would find out and get back to them, and I did.

After the conference, we sent everyone a complete Q&A from all the sessions, along with what was being done to address any outstanding issues. We also created a field advisory board to solicit ongoing feedback. This generated positive momentum throughout the company, and many initial detractors became strong supporters.

Takeaway: Never ignore your naysayers. Listen to them, learn from them and take their perspectives into account when developing your promotional strategies. This will help you get a better understanding of the core issues, consider the risks/benefits of your decisions and prepare intelligent responses to potentially damaging scenarios.

But what do you think? Are we being too hard on big brands that screw up as this thought-provoking post from Danny Brown suggests, or should we expect more?

Jenifer Olson consults with a variety of organizations throughout the U.S., drawing upon experience honed from over 20 years designing and delivering senior-level marketing communications and PR for a wide range of industries. Follow her on Twitter @JenaJean.


  • Really great lessons Jenifer! In your first point I think you are trying to say we should guide the conversation/questions a certain way. I think you are absolutely right about dangers with leaving things too open ended. Do you have suggestions on good way to narrow the focus while still allowing your audience to feel like they can express themselves?

    February 22, 2012 at 8:18 pm
    • Thanks, Maja! Great question!

      These points aren’t necessarily in chronological order, if that helps. I started with the lesson I did because it tied back to the McDonald’s issue so directly. It’s not about narrowing the conversation at all, but about making an informed decision on where and how you want to have it. Don’t ask what may be perceived as a disingenuous question or offer up an audience broadcast platform (like a hashtag promotion that can be hijacked) unless you’re completely prepared to handle the “incoming.”

      If you take the time to know and understand your customers/audience and really listen to what they’re saying, you’re better able to assess the risks and consequences of any actions you take because you understand the core issues. I didn’t do that in lesson #2 above, but my saving grace was that the sessions were small break-outs, so I could learn and adjust after the first one. I recognized my error and took steps to fix it, which helped mitigate the damage. But if I could go back and do it all over again… 🙂

      February 23, 2012 at 8:47 am
      • I think your point about being ready to handle “incoming” is critical particularly on major issues. Being prepared is important. I also think that we need to think through when the “incoming” requires a response. As I’ve said before sometimes it is just noise.

        Thanks again for sharing the post and the lessons you’ve learned.

        February 23, 2012 at 9:13 am