How to recover after a PR #fail

It would be nice if we could be winners all the time, but life, and work, sometimes doesn’t go to plan. Here PR chiefs put their hands up to their own mistakes and offer some sage advice for moving onwards and upwards, no matter what has happened. 

When there is a media storm  

Apologise and then act 

Chris Norton, managing director of agency Prohibition PR: “The first thing to do is admit you’ve messed up, instead of trying to cover your tracks or make excuses. Apologise authentically in a way that matters - you should be sincere and genuine, accepting full blame for the event or mistake.

 “This doesn’t mean getting the CEO or chairman to sit in front of an autocue reading off a script in a boardroom with branding everywhere. This is not the time to use corporate language or try to get your personal brand out there.  

“You should also always apologise on whatever platform the mistake occurred on. So if it is an ill-fated tweet, apologise on Twitter first. If you are open and honest you will come out of it far stronger. 

“Then you need to explain exactly what you’re going to do about it. It’s all well and good apologising, but there needs to be some kind of resolution - people always want to hear a heart-felt apology and then see immediate actions to follow.” 

But be careful how you apologise 

Martyn Gettings, head of PR at agency Tank: "When things go wrong, whether that's negative media attention, a badly thought out campaign or ill-judged tweet, the knee-jerk response for most brands will be to issue an apology. Brands are increasingly apologising for offending people, but rather than putting out the fire, these apologies tend to fan the flames and create even more controversy around the way they say sorry.  

"Consumers are getting more annoyed with disingenuous apologies, so it is important to front-up, move away from bland statements and offer their customers an authentic response which actually takes steps to resolve the situation. PR disasters happen and it’s why crisis comms plans should always be focused on more than a quick apology and hoping the situation disappears."

Case studies 

Things got out of hand! 

David Clare, Head of PR at marketing agency Fox Agency: “In the early days of social media, we put out a survey to the very loyal fan base of a major client. In order to increase visibility and engagement, one of the brand's other agencies then promoted the survey, sharing it with a much wider audience than normal. With the ability for people to add their own voting options, the responses got a little out of hand, to say the least! The client was less than impressed. However, this was a great fail to learn from, as it showed the importance of communication between all parties. You and your client are not an island. Consider all partners they’re working with and work with them too - you all have the same goal in mind, so communicate and share what you’re doing - and you just might find new and exciting opportunities along the way.” 

I shared my mistakes on a blog 

Jessica Pardoe, account manager at agency The Source PR says: “I think the most important thing to take away from a PR fail is the lesson behind it, so that you can learn from it and learn how to be better next time. It’s important not to shy away from our mistakes, and actually appreciate them as vessels of knowledge. I recently wrote a blog about all my mistakes as a digital PR and I’m not ashamed to admit them, because I’ve learnt from them and won’t make them again. In PR, mistakes are bound to happen. Take them in your pride, own up to them and recognise them, lean on your seniors and learn from them so you can improve next time. We can’t be 100% perfect all the time, and I think it’s important (especially for juniors) to remember that.”

 When your pitch is rejected

Take another stance 

Beth Nunnington, communications director at performance marketing agency Journey Further: "If you've simply pitched an idea that's just not strong enough, relook at the angles and see if you can add any additional third-party data, or expert commentary to give it a stronger news hook.”

When a campaign fails

Learn from your mistakes

Beth Nunnington: “Whatever has happened, the most important step is to take learnings from it, and put in a better risk-assessment strategy for future campaigns and content. When in doubt, always get people not involved in the project to sense check, to get objective opinions and help to flag any issues before they occur." 

Work out what went wrong

Hana Bednarova, managing director at PR agency Shout Bravo: “One of the most important things is to analyse why the campaign did not perform as much as we thought it would. This will help us to see what went wrong, but also it'll prevent us from making the same mistake again.” 

Offer solutions 

Hanna Bednarova: “Be honest with your client or management that you report to, explain what happened and why, and offer solutions. This does not need to be another campaign, but using elements of the campaign that you believe will bring the results. This does not mean using and reusing the campaign in the way that we know has already failed. You have analysed your campaign so you know the parts of the campaign that you can make better and use them separately.  

“Showcase what will happen next, plan how you can use certain parts of the campaign and what you will avoid.” 

You might not always be able to turn a failure into a success, but at the very least, there are always valuable lessons to be learnt when things go wrong.