How to Recover From a PR Nightmare (Mistakes & Angry Mobs)


Disclaimer: This article is written for those who admit to have made a mistake, not those who’ve been accused of doing so but disagree.


We’ll make mistakes, and will be subject to our past actions being labeled mistakes as the goalposts move.

The study of public relations is becoming pertinent to even the average Joe who doesn’t have hundreds of employees and thousands of customers. Amassing a following on social media is possible to anyone who opens an account, and managing that audience becomes necessary sooner or later.

As time goes on, it seems key to develop some sort of a feel for managing the public perceptions about you, your small business, or your corporation. The things we do and partake in are increasingly becoming more accessible to be judged, ridiculed, and labeled as mistakes.

This article is about dealing with groups of people who are angry about a mistake you’ve made.


Acknowledge and Study the Source of the Anger


The first thing you should be doing as an individual in trouble, or a leader of a group in trouble with the public, is to gather as much information about the issue at hand as possible. Do your research on what caused the events that unfolded, and what exactly others are up in arms about.

There are cases when your understanding of the problem isn’t what the disgruntled party is focused on from the outside looking in. Be in tune with what the populous is actually angry over, and study all the facts of the matter which gave birth to the reactions against you.

Recommended Book: Principles: Life and Work.

Remember, your focus is on what angered members of the public, not whether you think they’re right to be angry.

Getting a clear picture of what it is that people are angry with you over takes time and effort. You’ll be pressured to ease the public response from the get go, which would be a mistake. You’ll find that being burned in the immediate emotional responses to any issues the public deems important is an important first step.

You’ll need to take some damage, from a public response perspective, because it is important to assume an open minded, investigative role in regards to the issues at hand. Someone in such a role doesn’t immediately go on the defensive. Once you exhibit any tendencies of being on the defensive, your response would be difficult to label objective.

Dictate your understanding of the pressing concerns back to those who’ve brought them to your attention. Exclaim your seriousness in thoroughly investigating the issues at hand. As a leader in the early stages of responding to a PR nightmare, assuming an unbiased, objective role in the early stages of response is key.

There are issues which are blatantly obvious from the get go. If you’re responding to clear issues which are easy to take a stance on off the bat, do so. Take a rigid stance against obvious mistakes made on your, or your team’s part. After you do however, communicate the desire to study all the factors which led to such a blatant issue’s birth. Once you allow people to notice that you understand the source of the anger, your chances of being listened to in subsequent stages of your interaction will increase.


Apologize, and Do It As Soon After the Mistake As Possible


An apology on behalf of yourself, organization, or entity is important to vehemently present for many obvious, and some not so obvious, reasons. The obvious reasons are rooted in limiting any emotional responses which have angered backing their expression.

Your apology won’t save you from the anger toward you coming from those who feel wronged by you. Your best hope while presenting an apology, is for people who would have otherwise acted out irrationally due to their anger, to not do so and tone their reactions down a notch.

Your apologies will simply bring down the numbers of those who seek vengeful action in response to the actions you committed which are objectively wrong. Your apology is essential in raising the standard of the angered populous’ actions in response to your, or your company’s, mistake.

The length of time between a public response to what’s deemed a mistake on your part and your apology should be as short as possible. The authenticity of an apology increases when outside factors haven’t yet encouraged its existence.

The best apology is thereby one which reaffirms those knowledgeable of the issue, and educates those who haven’t yet discovered your mistake. The more time goes by between a mistake which has left victims in its trail, and an apology, the more room you leave for unfavorable reactions to your mistakes.

Ideally acknowledgement of issues, the communication of an objective approach to studying the issue, and the apology should come as one piece of public communication.


Forgiveness Is Easier Granted to Those Who Lose


Apologies which are made from a position of privilege are difficult to get right. They’re tough to deliver because of the inherent disadvantage that a privileged position brings with it in such a scenario.

Apologies are easiest to accept when we deem the individuals apologizing to have “lost” a comparable amount to the pain they’ve caused with their misdoings. Such losses can vary from financial hits to permanent scars left on one’s public reputation. The eye for an eye approach to justice seems to hold a dominant position in the human psyche until it’s massaged out with more moral approaches to justice.

People are deemed to be apologizing only for getting caught, not for their initial misdeeds, when it is clear that they gain from giving said apology. Apologies which are easily sniffed out as PR stunts at easing the situation at hand are thereby more hurtful than helpful to any actual attempts at curbing a public response.

A sense of loss is imperative to communicate and exhibit. Apologies made from a prideful, privileged, and undented perspective are a mistake. Ensure to communicate that you genuinely believe there to be no silver lining to the apology you’re giving for your (or your team’s) misdeeds. Dive in and feel every submissive nuance involved in delivering a full, unplanned, and poignant apology.


Highlight Victims of Your Mistakes As Best You Can


The public’s further discovery of new / additional victims to your, or your company’s, mistakes will fuel its response. Be prepared and unemotional to the fact that truth will be bent to favor / benefit any victims in this event. Once you’ve been made the enemy of the moment, know that your attempts to claw out of that hole have long passed.

Ensure you’re ready for statistics to be misused, people’s stories to be embellished, and quotes being taken out of context in an effort to cast an even darker shadow.

Your natural response to victim stories in the face of public mistakes you make will be to go on the defensive. Falling to that desire to defend yourself against out of context quotes, misattributed statistics, and embellished stories is a trap.

Know that the best course in curbing the efficacy that supposed evidence of your misdoings holds is to lean into the embellished reaction to your misdeeds. Rather than attempting to suppress a consistent stream of victim stories leaking out of the public’s reaction to your misdoings, play the role to amplify those stories.

Give stories and opinions against you even more of a stage when they’re gaining traction while all eyes are on you. Play into the public’s desire to publicize certain victims or revelations by beating them to the end goal of those anecdotes becoming widespread.

The strategic reasons for playing up the victims to your misdeeds are the following:

  1. You’ll reaffirm and silence those who’ve made it a mission to have the victim’s stories be heard. If you beat them to the punch, or at least meet them there, they’ll be more likely to be willing to listen to your further response with less vigor.
  2. You’ll bait people to come to your defense in calling out “victims” who may be playing up their victimhood as it relates to your misdeeds. Essentially, you’d motivate those who quietly suspect people to be blowing things out of proportion to speak up in your favor.

Your Plan Toward Improvement Should Be Discrete and Strictly About Making the Victims’ Lives Better


Once you’ve established an objective and apologetic foundation to your addressal of the matter, it comes to focus on next steps. Your apology would (as best as it could) serve to limit polarizing responses to the next steps you present.

You’ll be called to present a plan going forward to fix the issues at hand. Keeping any victims to your mistakes or misdoings at the forefront of your response is critical at this stage. It becomes easy to fall into a space of protecting yourself, your company, or your team’s reputation rather than mending relationships, solving problems, and extending a hand out.

Ensure that your plans going forward are:

  1. As specific and discrete as you can make them.
  2. Connected to helping the victims of your mistake or misdoing at every specific step.

Connect each portion of your plan going forward to a specific complaint or issue which arose due to your missteps. You can work through all the issues at hand however you like, just ensure you have an honest and objective grasp of what needs to be addressed.

Once you have a list of all the issues at hand, no matter how insignificant they seem, the mission of developing a plan going forward which hits on each of those issues begins.

Your objective at this stage would be simple: to show your understanding of the complaints against you or your team by addressing their every nook and cranny with a detailed plan going forward.


Let Others Publicize How You’ve Made Amends Behind the Scenes


You’ll notice it takes a lot of work to turn around a public’s perception of relatively small mistakes. It’ll feel as though you’re consistently taking two steps forward and three steps back.

Stay the course however, and ensure that you keep the desire to publicize how good of a job you’re doing solving the issue(s) at hand. In the eyes of those who’ve complained and took issue with your blunders, you’d be doing what’s necessary, notwithstanding how much work it requires.

Seeking reward for fixing the errors you’re deemed responsible for would communicate your inability to fully accept responsibility for the issues at hand. The fact of the matter, in the minds of those who’ve turned against you, is that you’re required to slay the monster you created. That requirement comes with an expectation, not a hope.


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Disclaimer of Opinion: This article is presented only as opinion. It does not make any scientific, factual, or legal claims in any way.