Crisis PR: What to do when it all goes wrong

In life, sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry. In PR, things are no different. Even the most experienced PR practitioner can find their self-confronted with a marketing disaster or a campaign that just fails to meet its goals. As we’ve touched on before in a previous post, PR isn’t an exact science, results often vary. What is guaranteed though is your reaction and how you choose to recover from a difficult situation. This is especially important for indie developers who, more often than not, don’t have trained PR people to the handle a crisis. So, if you find yourself in that situation here are a few tips on what you can do when it all goes wrong.

What could go wrong?

Well, frankly a lot of things. This could range from bad reviews and negative news coverage to community backlash regarding monetisation or even no media interest at all. A PR crisis can take on many forms but often in the case of indie developers, it’s lack of media interest or bad communication that cause most of the issues. Community engagement is extremely important to smaller developers and the lines of discourse are usually directly open in comparison to triple-A studios. Although this is something your audience might appreciate it also means people might shout at you on Twitter if their expectations of your game aren’t met. How you respond to that is very important.

Plan for the worst

The first reaction to any kind of PR crisis is to take stock of exactly what has gone wrong. This is the point at which you’d re-evaluate your PR plan and analyse where the issue began. If you don’t have a PR plan then that’s your first mistake. The best possible way to avoid unwanted surprises during a campaign is to have a detailed and robust strategy in place. That way you can quickly assess what has gone wrong and focus on addressing the issue instead of floundering your response time trying to understand the situation.

A plan like this should take into account the variety of challenges and threats a campaign can face and present backup ideas should they occur. With some sense of what can go wrong you should be ready to enact a counter strategy should you find that your PR hasn’t worked. PR disasters can be costly, depending on their severity, so always plan for the worst and work backwards from there.

The unexpected happens

So, you had a plan and a number of strategies in place should things go wrong, but something unexpected has happened. For a small indie game studio, this can be catastrophic, even teams with the support of bigger PR agencies can struggle in a situation like this. The first step is always to take a step back and coordinate with your team your plans moving forward. This, in PR terms, means a complete blackout, the last thing you need is someone jumping on social media and the situation spiralling beyond your control. It’s worth noting that silence is not recommended as a long-term strategy as although it may control things escalating it can cost you dearly in the long run in terms of reputation.

Now, your reaction could take on many forms depending on the scale of the PR problem you are faced with, but there are a few key guidelines that you can follow to ensure the best possible course of action.

Honesty is the best policy

First and foremost, be honest. Don’t try to escape the problem by not telling the truth or using excuses to justify your actions. If something has really gone wrong then open and honest discourse is a great starting point to reach a resolution. This could mean issuing an apology or statement of clarification in a professional and respectful manner that puts a clear line under your stance on the situation. An honest approach is a great way to repair your relationship with your audience, but it’s imperative that your communication is genuine or you could run the risk of facing a further backlash.

Avoid online debates

When issuing statements, apologies or updates on your failed marketing efforts it’s always best to do so in a way that adopts a one-way dialogue. This may be counter to how you usually interact with your audience, but often in these situations opening yourself up to a two-way dialogue can worsen the situation and course you to lose control of the discourse. For instance, you might jump into a Reddit AMA after a PR disaster with purely good intentions as a way to show your audience you acknowledge the issue only to be goaded into saying something inflammatory and causing more problems for you to deal with. In this sense, a one-way dialogue keeps your intentions clear to your audience and doesn’t open you up to further mistakes.  

Actions speak louder than words

Often, if the PR crisis you are facing is minimal, swift and efficient action can solve the problem before it becomes a bigger issue. By way of example, let’s say your game has promised certain features and this has been echoed in the press releases, but unknown glitches or bugs have meant that hasn’t happened. Facing an audience backlash becomes a lot easier if you can simply address the issue head-on fix the problem and then communicate that fact to your audience. This approach isn’t always possible but is extremely effective when utilised correctly. There are times where your audience would much rather hear you’ve fixed the issue than read an apology explaining why it happened.

With these core attitudes in mind, you should be able to evaluate and react in a way that is appropriate for your situation and results in minimal damage to your reputation.

Failure is the greatest teacher

Once the dust has settled and the crisis has been handled it’s time to look back and assess what went wrong. The most effective way to benefit from a bad situation is to learn from it and use that knowledge moving forward to improve your PR efforts. Now is the time to reevaluate your primary research and ask yourself the important questions. Did you properly identify your target audience? Do you need to adapt your outreach strategy? There’s no value in just accepting a campaign failed. In gathering feedback from professionals and the public alike you could gain invaluable insight into what caused your PR campaign to fall into crisis and how to avoid that in the future.

A crisis doesn’t have to become a disaster

Remember crisis PR is about choosing the right strategy to address the problem and learning from what originally caused it. Proper planning can help you prepare for the worst and arm you with a strategy should things go off track. Taking the time to consider your mistakes is always the best course of action. Never just react to a situation without taking a moment to take stock of your reply. And, ultimately, always learn from your mistakes, PR is often a delicate process and mistakes will occasionally happen, but it’s how you choose to handle those mistakes that will differentiate your situation from a PR crisis to a PR disaster.

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