PR disasters don’t just happen to big firms

Reputation loss is a huge risk for small firms, says the FSB’s Dave Stallon, which is why the business group launched a crisis PR management service

Loss of reputation is now one of the biggest risks to businesses in the UK. Reputation, put simply, is the way you or your business are regarded by other people.

The dominance of social media and online reviews means damage can spread quickly. Even giant businesses can be caught out, as United Airlines recently found when pictures of a passenger being dragged from a plane went viral within hours.

Despite this, almost no small businesses have access to professional in-house PR expertise, and few have access to a contracted external PR agency. Dealing with a PR crisis is something that all companies will have to deal with at some point. A PR crisis management plan is something that should be incorporated into any start-up’s business plan, particularly when seeking investment.

You need protocols in place, you may need to issue a comment or statement to the media and communicate to other stakeholders including customers, suppliers and partners. You can also identify potential reputational vulnerabilities, mitigate against them, and have a plan in place to deal with them – identify the best spokesperson, have a list of probable questions you may get asked with prepared answers.

Handling enquiries from journalists can be an intimidating prospect. This is especially the case if you’ve never had any experience of, or any training in, how to deal with the press. Many smaller businesses and the self-employed may never expect to face the situation. The truth, however, is that you may receive media enquiries for a whole range of reasons – many of which may be positive.

There are some golden rules when it comes to handling media enquiries:

1. Always respond as quickly as you can

BUT make sure your response is thought-through, seeking expert PR advice if you feel it is contentious. Make sure the people in your organisation who are likely to be the first port of call for enquiries know to be polite, not to be drawn in to any comment, and know who to direct the call to.


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You could miss out on the chance to secure valuable positive coverage if you ignore a media enquiry, or don’t help the journalist in a timely way. Worse, it could result in a negative story for you, containing the notorious line ‘unavailable for comment’. That said, it is crucial to think through your response so that you’re comfortable and have assessed any further implications. Sometimes issuing a holding statement, until a more detailed response is ready, can be a good option. If you’re not certain, expert advice can help.

2. Always ‘on the record’

When a journalist calls they will be taking shorthand notes of the conversation as it progresses. It’s always best to assume anything you say could end up being reported.

3. Avoid jargon

Many journalists will not necessarily be experts in the field they are calling to enquire about. With this in mind, avoid the use of highly technical language and try to explain things in layperson’s terms. Most journalists are writing for a non-specialist audience.

Crisis PR management is a highly specialised area. If a potential PR crisis is handled expertly it could mean the difference between huge loss or even business closure or survival. This means not only being prepared for ‘worst case scenarios’, but being able to expertly judge the severity of cases – many of which are unexpected – and reacting appropriately.

New technology and communications mean potential reputational issues have the ability to escalate dramatically and very swiftly. It’s crucial that all businesses – no matter how small – have effective means of dealing with this. Social media, round-the-clock news media, and data breach threats increasingly pose risks to businesses’ reputations.

At FSB, we recently launched a new PR crisis management advice service that offers our small business and self-employed members important information and guidance from a public relations expert who can assist in handling a crisis. Key features include telephone advice on how to deal with serious negative publicity along with up to £10,000 of Public relations consultancy to assist businesses in dealing with a major public relations crisis.

Dave Stallon is commercial director at FSB, the UK’s biggest business group which has a national network of members. FSB is a member-led, not-for-profit organisation that offers its members a wide range of vital business services and advice, as well as a powerful voice in government. Find out more at FSB.org.uk

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