How to Avoid a PR Disaster

When taking on a new Public Relations (PR) project, it is tempting to jump right ahead to tactical ideas. However, this can and will most likely lead to a huge PR disaster. The number one way to avoid a PR nightmare is to conduct thorough research and analyze the results before getting started on brainstorming strategy and tactics. Just remember the RACE formula:

1) Research
2) Analysis
3) Communications
4) Evaluation

Research is a critical initial step for a number of reasons. Firstly, you have to clearly define and understand your target audience. Segmenting a specific target market will focus your messaging and communication goals. What does your target market like? What are their interests? How do you reach them? You have to get to know your audience.

Secondly, research involves assessing the current market climate. Determine your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. What are your competitors doing? Is this the right time to launch a new communications strategy? What makes your company different? Why should people care?

Thirdly, the research process allows you to test messages to determine what works and what should be changed. Your key messages are essential to the success of the campaign. Make sure your messages are strong enough to withstand criticism and have a contingency plan on hand.

An example of a PR strategy that was not well researched or well managed is the infamous #McDStories Twitter campaign.

McDonald’s Social Media McBlunder

Back in January 2012, McDonald’s launched a social media campaign to compliment their Suppliers Stories marketing theme with a 24-hour promotional campaign on Twitter. Two keyword hashtags: #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories were promoted and inserted into the streams of Twitter users[1] in an effort to encourage the public to discuss their favourite McDonald’s experiences. McDonald’s initially tweeted, “Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day #McDStories”[2]. This tweet was followed by a second tweet:


Almost immediately, Twitter users responded. But not in the way that McDonald’s had hoped. Twitter members began posting negative remarks and jokes, leading others to follow suit, turning the well-intentioned campaign into an extreme case of “tweetjacking”. Twitter members posted the following:


What Went Wrong?

The main problem with the #McDStories hashtag is that it is not well-defined. Consequently, consumers jumped at the opportunity to use the hashtag with negative connotations, tweeting about horrible service experiences and questionable quality of food at McDonald’s.

  • The #McDStories campaign was not very well integrated into the Supplier Stories campaign, as there was no mention of the hashtags on any other McDonald’s PR platform.
  • The hashtag was introduced without any explanation and without defined parameters of how the hashtag was meant to be used.
  • The hashtag was easy to take out of context and using the brand name in the tag set the stage for negative exploitation.
  • McDonald’s reacted by pulling down the initial tweet with no explanation, and then proceeded to ignore the problem with no response to public messages.
  • The silence on McDonalds’ part reinforced the idea that the fast-food chain does not want to engage in conversations with followers and is only interested in self-promotion.
  • Lack of research and preparation resulted in poor execution of the campaign.

Research and Prevention

In this case, McDonald’s would have benefited from conducting initial research before launching the #McDStories hashtag. They should also have prepared a plan to engage with responses.

  • Set clear goals of what you would like to accomplish and outline a target audience.
  • Create a crisis plan and guideline before launching a PR campaign.
  • Keep your messages on point and monitor the campaign in order to quickly resolve any issues.
  • Maintain engagement with responders and be prepared to engage with naysayers.
  • Acknowledge and respond to negative situations before it gets out of control.
  • Do not delete messages or posts without an explanation.

Overall, Public Relations strategies can be tricky. With the right tools, research, and preparation, every communication breakdown and PR Nightmare can be prevented and managed. Don’t be tempted to jump to tactics before doing the necessary research.

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