Is all publicity good publicity? Just ask Chipotle what it thinks after highly publicized E. coli outbreaks led to its first ever quarterly loss, owing to a sales nosedive of 23.4 percent.
Every industry has its nightmare PR situation, whether it’s food-safety issues for a restaurant or criticisms of environmental practices for an energy company. Thankfully, with the right strategy, it’s possible to come back from almost anything.
So how do you know when a great marketing plan is needed? What situation calls for a stellar PR maneuver? When your company is in crisis, it can be difficult to take the time to discern the appropriate strategy. This guide will get you started and well on your way to making the right choice.
Aren’t PR and Marketing Kind of the Same Thing?
The first step in choosing a marketing or PR strategy is to understand the subtle differences between the two approaches.
PR is all about controlling a company’s public narrative by communicating its vision, goals, and mission. A successful public relations campaign generates positive press and buzz from influencers across social channels. A successful PR campaign may also negate and mitigate a negative situation.
After Chipotle’s E. Coli catastrophe, for example, the company sought to regain control of its image and redirect the conversation positively. To do this, it significantly increased its spending on national advertising, debuted the summer loyalty program Chiptopia, and entertained customers with short films and games.
Marketing, on the other hand, works to create continuous buzz around a company or product, and an impactful campaign will positively affect sales; post a high ROI; and garner attention from customers, top individuals in the industry, and the general public.
For example, after American sales of McDonald’s declined, the fast-food company issued an RFP to find a creative agency. The fast-food chain’s decision was driven by a few key goals: It not only wanted to roll out a consistent set of creative and strategic ideas, but it also wanted to push those concepts out across various channels. Ultimately, the company wanted to increase consumer engagement long-term with continuous touchpoints across mediums and channels.
If One Is Good, Two Are (Sometimes) Better
If the goals and outcomes of marketing and PR sound similar, that’s because they are. In fact, the two approaches are so intertwined that in some situations, both may be required. When I was enlisted to help a large energy company after its environmental practices came under heavy public scrutiny, I employed a mixed strategy that would address the crisis by explaining and showing the company’s environmental practices.
We listened to frontline employees to clearly understand the issues customers were facing. We talked directly to these customers during town halls, creating a dialogue with critics and concerned citizens. We wrote and placed editorials and used our social listening tools to follow the conversation. We understood that clients needed something that was simple and straightforward. As a result, we turned the situation into one of support and understanding, allowing the company to continue its environmental efforts.
With this campaign, we employed both PR and marketing efforts. We used the learnings gained from our PR outreach and social listening to inform marketing about how to better their sales materials, which became much easier to understand, allowing the program to move forward.
4 Common Mistakes When Choosing a Marketing or PR Strategy
If you’re a CEO, your brand will most likely go through some sort of crisis during your tenure. It’s best to have a plan in place and know what to look for so that you can react quickly to gain your footing before a PR nightmare has the chance to take control of your company’s narrative. To choose the correct path, avoid these common mistakes.
- Not listening.
It’s essential to pay attention to your social media channels for mumblings about issues before they turn into crises. During my work with the energy company, these listening tools helped me determine whether the issue was really a full-blown crisis or merely a few vocal complaints that could be addressed directly with the consumer. Don’t make the mistake of turning a complaint into a crisis. Listen, and listen well.
- Not responding quickly.
If you identify a crisis, get on it immediately. If you were listening from the beginning, you should be well-equipped to handle it, but you must develop a plan of action and act quickly. Immediacy is paramount to your campaign’s success.
Although Chipotle eventually handled the E. coli outbreak aggressively, it did come under scrutiny for its initial sluggishness. The chain’s early silence on the subject caused confusion and bred mistrust among even its most loyal customers. And though the chain later issued an apology, many saw the pledge as too little, too late. If Chipotle had addressed the elephant in the room more quickly, it would have sent out an even stronger message to the public that it was handling the situation.
- Not fostering friendly relations between PR/marketing and legal.
In a crisis situation, it’s best that PR/marketing and legal have friendly relations. Make sure both teams understand one another’s goals and responsibilities. This trust and respect results in the ability to quickly respond with a message that is timely, transparent, and clear, with legal constraints minimized.
- Ignoring the power of local.
Brand loyalty starts at the local level, so companies must always have hyperlocal focuses. I advised the energy company CEO I worked with to listen to his frontline employees because they had likely established personal relationships with the customers on the ground and could provide valuable feedback that was unknown at headquarters.
There are many paths to handling a crisis situation, but if you keep your ear to the ground, have preliminary plans of attack in place, keep your team focused on the end goal, and understand the benefits of PR and marketing campaigns, you’ll be able to turn even the worst nightmare into an opportunity.
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Written by: Sarah Clark, President at Mitchell Communications Group, LLC
Clark is one of the top strategic communications professionals in the country, with more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications and an exceptional track record in protecting corporate reputations and redefining perceptions in key areas of business.
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