THE BLOG

How Not to Make a Tit Out of Yourself in a PR Crisis

31/07/2015 12:32 BST | Updated 30/07/2016 10:59 BST

Recently, a woman posted a very disturbing story on Facebook breastfeeding activism forum Free to Feed, where she alleged a security guard in a Leicester branch of discount retail chain Primark forcibly removed her nine-month-old daughter from her breast when she would not stop breastfeeding her, and then walked off with the child.

Within a few hours, the story had leapt from the relatively obscure social forum and on to the national media and parenting forums, including Mumsnet and Netmums. Unsurprisingly, it was met with almost unanimous horror judging by the wide-eyed online chatter. We have all seen stories of women being asked to cover up or sit in a toilet when breastfeeding out and about, but this was a whole different level- it was apparently both a violent act and a violation of this woman and her child, and likely a criminal offence (the police were also involved). Of course the story went viral and was trending and shared thousands of times across social media within hours.

Bad news going viral is the kind of thing that keeps PRs up at night and I wouldn't have wanted that job last week. It can be unstoppable, totally unmanageable and can irrevocably damage a brand if not handled well. (There are so many examples of poor handling, that it requires a blog all of its own- but as a quick reference, have a look at the shocking Beach Body Ready debacle for a perfect example of what not to do).

But this time, despite staring down both barrels of a truly dreadful scenario, Primark handled it perfectly.

As it turns out, serious doubts have since been cast over the woman's testimony. Even the online forum where this whole thing began is backing away from her and the story is no longer being reported by media outlets or on social media generally. CCTV footage, the testimony of staff and shoppers and descriptions of security in the store on the day she alleged the incident occurred did not match her version of events. All in all, extremely damning stuff. But had the damage been done? Or did Primark save their reputation through clever handling.

So, what did Primark get so right?

Firstly, they responded quickly on social media, but without being at all defensive and at all times keeping a cool head. Come at this kind of thing with all your pent up rage and fury and all you'll achieve apart from a broken keyboard and self loathing, is an even greater poo-storm than you first encountered. The company swiftly acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations, and promised to investigate immediately. They also repeated that they fully support nursing mothers in all their stores and would not tolerate any violation of this. The company kept everyone informed of what they were doing and were calm and respectful at all times, even when faced with a head spinning number of abusive and frothing posts on Facebook and Twitter.

Secondly, Primark did not rush to get a statement ready. In fact, this was not released until the following day. It can be really tempting to get a full statement out as quickly as possible after negative publicity but it is always better to establish the full facts beforehand. Instead, the company waited until the investigation had gathered sufficient evidence before robustly denying the claims. Their press release was straight and to the point and was nothing beyond a statement of the facts, as Primark saw it.

And thirdly, at no point was Primark critical of the woman who made the allegation. They immediately took the higher ground and stayed there.

The statement from the company said:

"We have investigated this customer's allegation which we naturally take very seriously indeed.

"The CCTV footage, reviewed by store management, shows the customer in the Leicester store quite clearly during the time in question. We can see no evidence that she was approached by anyone during this period.

"We have spoken to the security guards on duty. They categorically deny behaving in the way alleged. Furthermore the individuals do not fit the description given by the customer.

"We have therefore concluded that the customer allegation is not supported by the available evidence to date. The company would obviously be happy to work with any police investigation into this incident, should this be needed.

"We have tried to contact the customer to reassure her about Primark's practice on breastfeeding."

So by waiting it out, establishing the facts and remaining fair and unemotional at all times, but at the same time giving the public as much information as necessary, Primark avoided what could have become a massive hate campaign. The company's cool reaction allowed the facts of the investigation to emerge.

Within hours, the story was blown apart. Free To Feed has since said it will close the Facebook group. The woman who made the initial allegation has yet to respond to Primark's statement or any requests for comment from the media. Damning indeed.

Social media is a valuable tool in getting your message across and communicating with customers and clients, but as this story has demonstrated, it can also be extremely damaging if something takes hold. We have used Primark's experience and response to develop three basic principles of how to handle a viral nightmare:

1: Respond to initial allegations quickly and calmly, without admitting anything. 'We are investigating as a matter of urgency' is usually a safe line'.

2: Establish the facts before issuing a statement and don't feel pressured to do so until you're ready, even if the internet is screaming at you.

3: Offer an olive branch to the person or person(s) making the allegation. Even if you want to beat them with said branch, it shows you've nothing to hide and are very professional.

Good luck out there, the internet can be a scary place....