word cloud showing brand language and communications.

Do you know how to handle your brand tone in a PR crisis?

The past few weeks have been bad news for some major corporate brands. Pepsi began with a now infamously tone-deaf ad campaign, which trivialized protest movements by implying Pepsi was the solution to even the most serious problems. Not to be outdone, United followed up its own disaster with a response that somehow made a horrifying situation worse.

These situations are similar in that both were the product of an almost incomprehensible lack of common sense. The factor which made them both so news worthy was that very few of us can understand how anyone thought this chain of events was a good idea. But the cause behind these incidents is quite different. United failed to properly handle a situation in the moment, as it was unfolding. Pepsi, on the other hand, had all the time in the world to re-think their ad campaign, and somehow decided to go ahead with it anyway. So let’s take a quick look at what caused these situations to arise, and how your business can prevent a similar catastrophe from happening.

Brand tone and messaging go hand-in-hand.

If your brand is doing their marketing right, you’ll have developed a pretty thorough understanding of your target personas. You know who your people are, and how best to reach them with your messaging. You know what their pain points are, and how to appeal to them. Your brand message is the what you’re trying to say, and your brand tone is how you say it.

Pepsi has a well-developed brand tone. They know how they want to appear before the public, and they’re good at delivering their message in that style. Where Coca Cola likes to emphasize its roots (don’t we all prefer drinking a Coke from an old-fashioned glass bottle?), Pepsi prefers to appear on-trend. Unfortunately, this shallow take on life sometimes results in a shallow understanding of modern-day issues—as demonstrated by their woefully misguided ad.

The problem with Pepsi, therefore, wasn’t one of brand tone, but rather of messaging. They knew how to say a thing, it’s what they were saying that they screwed up. To avoid this issue, you need to go deep, even when your tone is shallow. Stick close to your target audience and think twice before you try to capitalize on the story of the moment with an ill-planned message.

Authentic beats corporate any day.

Contrary to Pepsi, United’s problem, wasn’t one of crafting a poor message as of mishandling a crisis. The crisis was of their own making, and the direct result of the systems and process they had in place for handling overbooked flights. (Or, in this case, not overbooking a flight, but deciding to bump already-seated passengers in favor of their own crew.) The culture at United which lead to this incident will take a lot of time to address, but the way in which they handled it can serve as an important case study to PR personnel everywhere.

Probably the most tone-deaf examples of bad brand tone come when a company responds to a crisis in an evasive, corporate manner. You can spot this in the heavy use of passive voice as a way of accepting responsibility. They don’t step forward and say “we messed up,” instead they say “mistakes were made.”

It doesn’t take much hard thinking to understand how brands can fall into this trap. When something goes terribly wrong, there could be legal consequences to accepting responsibility before all the details are in. Furthermore, if your employees haven’t been trained in handling a situation like this, they could be caught like a deer in the headlights, unsure which direction to turn, but feeling certain that a move either way spells doom.

But if, in the midst of all this uncertainty, authenticity will serve you better than hesitation. If you have to retract something, it is far better to be proven blameless than shown stone-hearted. A heartfelt apology will always go down better than a cringe worthy attempt to pass the buck.

You can prepare for a bad PR incident.

No brand wants to be the instigator of a bad PR situation. But the bigger and more successful you are, the more likely it is that someone at some branch of your company will do something that damages your reputation. And while you may not know what that thing will be, you can be prepared to handle it when it comes your way.

For starters, you can prevent a bad PR by working with your company to build sensitivity training. This will help them develop skills for handling tough scenarios at work, particularly when they involve working with customers. In fact, this is precisely one of the things Starbucks does when they train their employees in emotional intelligence. By taking time to proactively work with their baristas to handle potentially trying customer interactions, they not only protect their brand reputation, but provide their workforce with tools to help them succeed in their environment.

You can also work with your marketing team to develop an appropriate response to potential disaster ahead of time. The goal is not to be scripted, but to think carefully about the kind of problems which might arise, and how your team can best respond to these situations before they get out of hand.

This is particularly the case if you handle company complaints in the public and fast-paced world of social media. In these situations, your customer interactions are in the hands of your social media team. Because they represent your brand on the front lines, you need to ensure they have all the support possible to work with customers in a way that represents your brand and while also addressing their needs.

How can brand tone benefit your business?

So to recap, brand tone won’t solve all your problems. If your message is a bad message, how you communicate it won’t fix anything. However, developing a brand tone for your business can help you prepare for a PR emergency in several ways. It can help you:

  • Present a unified front, so that no matter who represents your brand, it will sound like your brand.
  • Provide the basis for employee training so that your employees can better handle emergencies and navigate difficult customer interactions.
  • Keep you from communicating a good message badly.

All of these things can strengthen your customer relations and improve their experience in interacting with your company.

Published 04/25/17 by Laura Lynch