The Art of the Learning Opportunity: How to Recover From a Public Relations Nightmare
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when operating a business in today's digital age is that EVERY interaction you have with a customer, regardless of how private you think it may be, is a public relations disaster waiting to happen. The internet has brought us together as a society like never before, and this brings with it both its positives and its negatives for organizations everywhere. If someone has a great interaction with your business on the internet, they can easily tell all their friends and family members about it with a quick tweet or Facebook post. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true - even a negative interaction with your customer service department on the telephone can quickly balloon into a PR nightmare in a matter of hours if you're not careful.
Because of this, it's best just to assume that EVERY conversation you have with a customer is under public scrutiny at all times (because it probably is). Even responding to what you believe to be an invalid negative review of your business has the potential to turn quickly into a lightning rod of controversy depending on where it falls in the news cycle.
The Lessons Learned
For the sake of argument, let's say you've found yourself in the middle of a PR nightmare due to a conversation with a client that quickly went south. Maybe one of your customer service reps let emotions get the best of them and what started as a routine call quickly turned hostile, Now, the whole world seems to know about it. You can't take back what has already happened, but you CAN use the lessons that you're about to learn as the foundation of every decision you make moving forward.
For starters, examine the situation to find out what you did right and, most importantly, what you did wrong. The fact that you're in the midst of a public relations crisis itself is not something you did "wrong" since popular opinion isn't necessarily something you can control. However, look at the steps you had to take as a group to get there. What problem did the customer call about in the first place? Why did the conversation with your rep turn so negative so quickly? Why does this single interaction seem to be capturing the attention of so many people at this particular moment?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you can then get started making it right. Note that this does not mean "fix the problem" as in "make it go away." It means to do what you can to course correct and get back on the path you want to be. Take the steps to educate your reps on how to avoid these situations in the future. Take a look at the original problem that the customer had with your product or service and, if valid, do something to fix it. If the client took the conversation public on Facebook or Twitter, respond the same way. Remember - all eyes are on you and customers who see a business that is willing to own up to its "mistakes" and make them right are more likely to show sympathy and compassion than if you try to take care of everything behind closed doors.
For many businesses, a public relations nightmare is not a question of "if" but "when." The key thing to take away from this situation is that you have a unique opportunity that you can use to improve your operations across the board. Even if you think you're in the right, there are likely things that you could have done better, or you wouldn't be in this situation in the first place. If you DON'T take this as a chance to learn some very valuable lessons, you're wasting an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade from a business perspective.