From ecological disasters to inappropriate Tweets, from products that don’t work to devastating scandals, almost every major company has experienced some type of public relations disaster. Some handled them better than others, but regardless of the eventual outcome, in every case there were lessons for other leaders.
Many of the worst PR disasters of recent memory will be used in leadership courses to prepare the next generation of leaders, but even those who have leadership experience can benefit from remembering these important lessons.
Leaders Are Present
When disaster strikes your organization, where will you be? On the front lines, guiding your team toward a resolution and visibly working to fix the problem, or on vacation somewhere, calling in for updates and letting the rest of your team handle everything? If there is one thing we can learn from recent, high-profile PR disasters, one of the fastest ways to turn public opinion against you is to appear as if you do not care about your organization, the problem or, worst of all, the people affected by whatever your company has done. It is important to understand that when you are the leader, you are the leader in good times and in bad. The bad times will reveal your character and allow you to show the skills that got you the position in the first place. Do not squander the opportunity by focusing on other priorities or creating the appearance that you’re doing so. Be present, be involved and be a leader.
Leaders Apologize and Rectify the Problem
When you or your organization makes a mistake, apologize, and let people know how you are going to fix the problem. Many leaders are reluctant to say sorry on behalf of their companies, believing that saying sorry shows weakness or even leaves them open to litigation. However, saying sorry and showing remorse for the problem will often help keep your supporters in your corner. When you refuse to say you are sorry and acknowledge responsibility, it tells others that you do not care about their concerns. It’s better to apologize and announce how the problem will be fixed — and then follow through.
Leaders Are Constantly on Display
Whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a manager in a small hospital, people are watching you. Your staff is looking to you for guidance and inspiration. Your fellow leaders are looking to you for insight into the challenges faced by your organization, and in some cases, the public might be watching how you manage your own affairs. Leaders need to realize that they are on display, and their behavior, responses to problems and challenges and even activities outside of the office reflect on their company and leadership ability. Being a leader doesn’t mean you need to be perfect, but be aware that everything you say and do both in and out of the office will be scrutinized and judged.
Leaders Must Share the Values of Their Company
Before you take any job, not just a leadership role, you must ensure that your personal values align with those of the organization. If they don’t, keep looking for a role that is a better fit. When your personal values are in conflict with those of the organization, it will be impossible for you to lead authentically; if the disconnect becomes public, you could cause a PR disaster. At the very least, you will lose credibility — why would anyone want to follow a leader who is a phony?
Leaders Must Prepare for Failure
For most businesses, it’s not a matter of if things will go wrong, it’s a matter of when. Even well-intentioned ideas can backfire, and when leadership is caught off-guard, their response may not be ideal. The best leaders are those who learn from their mistakes and failures and use that knowledge to correct the problem and improve. Work with your teams to develop contingency plans; even something as simple as a social media campaign should have a back-up plan that can be quickly launched if the public doesn’t respond as predicted. In a perfect world, leadership would never making mistakes and things would always go as planned. We do not live in a perfect world, so accept and prepare for the possibility of failure.
Learning from the example of others has always been an effective way to develop your own skills. As a leader, pay close attention to what others do, and learn from their triumphs and mistakes. You will know what to do — and what not to do — when things inevitability go wrong.