How to Handle an Ugly PR Mess

What would you do if your financial institution found itself in the middle of a PR fiasco? Take a look at this situation involving Navy FCU, then check out six tips for how to handle an ugly mess like this.

An employee of Navy FCU pulled a Muslim immigrant from Somalia out of line for wearing her traditional head scarf. The Muslim woman, Amal Hersi, has been a long time member of the credit union as well as an employee of the U.S. Navy.

When news reporters came asking about the incident, Navy FCU was predictably defensive: no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses. Unfortunately for Navy FCU, that policy did not apply to religious apparel.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights advocacy group, called on the Department of Justice to investigate what it is calling Navy FCU’s “illegal and unconstitutional” behavior. A threat of civil rights litigation apparently didn’t have any effect.

A few weeks later, Kenza Shelley was asked to leave her place in line at a Navy FCU branch because the religious head scarf she was wearing. She was told she could be served in a back room. This was the second time Shelley had been asked to leave the line and conduct her business privately. Navy FCU eventually apologized to Shelly, but stopped short of saying it made a mistake.

Bottom Line: Hiding behind your “policies” will usually result in a nasty blow to your brand — especially when you’re wrong. Navy FCU should have nipped this in the bud with the first incident…months ago. Instead, Navy FCU comes off looking unresponsive, insensitive and possibly even biggoted.

Update: Navy FCU announced that it was suspending its “no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses” policy while it evaluates “how it can be applied fairly.”

Here’s some advice on how to handle ugly PR stories (from “Sticky Situations” in Promo Magazine):

  1. Put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and work backwards.
    80% of crises can be managed favorably this way.
  2. Respond in real time.
    You can’t afford to call “time out” while devising your plan. Get the facts out stat.
  3. Be proactive.
    If you play defense, you’ll spend all your time on your heels.
  4. Tell the truth.
    Don’t spin. It will spiral out of control. And the truth always comes out anyway.
  5. Offer a sincere apology.
    The best apologies are tailored to the brand and reflect the organization’s core values.
  6. Use the web. Your critics will.
    When your brand is in crisis, there will be a conversation online somewhere. You’ve just got to find it. Jump online, check out Twitter, and see what bloggers are saying about you, because that’s exactly what consumers will do.

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