Small businesses can feel much bigger effects from a PR disaster
By Joyce M. Rosenberg
AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Halfway through Valentine’s Day, florist Ajay Kori realized he was in the midst of a disaster.
His company wasn’t going to be able to deliver many of the promised roses and other flowers by the end of the day. Angry customers started venting online, posting negative reviews of UrbanStems on sites like Google and Yelp. It was a public relations nightmare.
When a small business has a crisis, it can in some ways be more vulnerable than a behemoth like United Airlines, which got plenty of attention this month after video of a passenger being dragged off a plane went viral. Small businesses don’t have big revenue streams and cash reserves to cushion them if customers flee. And negative reviews about a local business can turn away prospective customers for weeks, months or longer.
Kori knew he had to move quickly to limit the damage from this past Valentine’s Day and save both his company’s reputation and the business itself.
“We sent out emails personally apologizing to every customer and gave them a refund,” says Kori, whose company is based in Washington, D.C., and delivers in five metropolitan areas around the country. UrbanStems delivered the flowers without charge over the next few days. And it called disappointed recipients to let them know it was the company, not their sweethearts, that let them down.
His response shows the advantage small companies can have: They don’t have multiple tiers of executives who often use precious time discussing what to do rather than taking action, says Scott Sobel, a senior executive at public relations firm kglobal.
“The smaller the business, the more quickly you can react,” Sobel says. “The longer you wait, the more damage is going to happen.”
United was criticized not only for the April 9 incident, but its fumbled response. CEO Oscar Munoz issued a series of statements in which he initially blamed the passenger before apologizing for United’s handling of the situation.
When a company makes a mistake, experts roundly agree it needs to own up to it swiftly and show that it’s sincerely trying to make amends.
“Being disingenuous will hurt you,” Sobel says. “You should try and negotiate … and ask, ‘how can we make it right for you?”
The steps Kori took, which included giving his personal cellphone number to unhappy customers, worked. Most deleted negative reviews. Some offered to help deliver flowers. Sales are up over last year.
“If you build goodwill, it makes any crisis easier to navigate,” says Beth Monaghan, CEO of InkHouse PR, based in Waltham, Massachusetts. Her company has not worked with Kori.
Sometimes a PR crisis befalls a company through no fault of its own.
Wine importer Selena Cuffe was preparing to unveil South African wine in Dallas in October 2014 when a man visiting the city from Liberia died from Ebola. The wine was being launched at a Sam’s Club but publicity for the event was canceled amid growing fears that the virus was spreading to the U.S.
“We expected about 10,000 people to come” to the launch, says Cuffe, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Heritage Link Brands. She ended up selling fewer than 40 bottles, and was left with nearly 9,000 cases of the wine, which was produced by the family of the late South African President Nelson Mandela.
Mindful of many people’s concern about products from Africa, Cuffe knew she couldn’t do a traditional marketing campaign. So Heritage Link Brands hired a PR agency to plot a strategy that included trying to educate consumers. Cuffe talked with journalists about the wine, and the fact that it had been produced thousands of miles away from where the Ebola outbreak occurred. She’s since been able to sell most of the wine, and used a similar strategy after importing wines from Brazil last year, when the Zika virus was in the news.