Fight or Flight: Responding to a PR CrisisBy Stacey Hood

From the dawn of man, the instinct to survive has been strong in all of us.

We either confront things head on (fight) or avoid/ignore them (flight).

We occasionally do both, depending on the circumstances.

This is a coping mechanism, part of our DNA. But it is not always physical; it can be mental or even emotional.

We’ve read the stories before of the child who survives in the woods for a few days at the age of 10 or the mom who lifts the car up off of a family member.

We see it in sports: Teams that fight back for a victory or a boxer that comes from behind to knock out his opponent in the last round after being on the verge of losing.

Fight vs. Flight

I grew up in a boxing family. My uncle and dad boxed in the service, while my cousins boxed Golden Glove.

While I didn’t personally box competitively like my family did, I do know how to box.

I learned how to throw a punch, how to keep my guard up, how to stand and not lose balance when throwing a punch.

I still will, out of instinct, throw up my hands if someone even acts like they’re going to throw a punch at me.

This is a basic example of the physical fight response.

The flight instinct developed as a way to get people away from dangerous or uncomfortable situations. You might experience it when unfriending someone on Facebook, or breaking up with someone in a relationship due to incompatibility.

How many times have you been involved in a conversation online, it gets a little heated, and you decide to just not respond anymore?

Have you ever literally walked away from someone because you felt threatened or didn’t like their tone?

That’s your flight reaction kicking in.


Unfortunately, we live in a time where bullying is at an all-time high.

People have literally lost their lives due to online statements made by people who are hiding behind a screen.

Gini Dietrich recently discussed this.

It absolutely leaves me aghast what people say nowadays. We are so quick to make knee-jerk, anonymous comments without really thinking them through completely.

We can immediately dismiss someone with the click of a button.

We can unfriend them, we can mute them, we can unfollow, we can unsubscribe, and so on.

But, is that flight…or is it fight?

Is standing up for yourself and saying “enough” by clicking that button you ‘fighting back’, or fleeing?

And, when you take to Twitter and Facebook to complain about a company or their service until they finally take action…is that you being a bully? Have you thought about which instinct will kick in for that organization? Fight, or flight?

The Fight in Marketing

From a customer service perspective, a company facing a disgruntled – some might say bullying – customer isn’t allowed to fight. And they aren’t allowed to flee, either. So, where does that leave them?

In marketing, we are constantly addressing issues such as low sales, increasing brand awareness, or better search engine rankings. In our worst case scenarios, we’re cleaning up PR disasters.

And when PR disasters happen, our fight instincts tend to kick in.

Fight causes you to be proactive and reactive.

You think on your feet.

And you react sometimes without thinking.

It can literally bring out the worst in people. On both sides of the equation.

This example can be seen in various case studies from the past few years; BP’s reaction to the oil spillJet Blue leaving travellers stranded, and many others.

These examples are classic examples of companies fighting back, and not in a good way.

The Flight in Marketing

Choosing not to respond at all is a flight response. The ol’ “let’s stick our head in the sand” method.

But you cannot ignore things today. Issues do not go away.

That said, sometimes the flight instinct can be a good thing.

It’s not running away from the fight, it’s moving it to better surroundings. It’s moving to a place where others can’t join in the fight.

It’s sending a DM on Twitter asking for the customer complaining online to call you instead of trying to work out an issue in 140 characters.

It’s offering a gift certificate or a free trip to a customer that deserves it.

Or offering a fast apology, as Fed Ex did after that horrible ‘box throwing’ incident.

Flight can be self-preservation for you, your client, and/or company.

But, don’t mistake ‘flight’ for ignoring something. A business that ignores its community won’t be around very long.

PR Crisis: Fight or Flight?

Remember the Motrin Moms incident? This is a classic case of a PR disaster. Motrin chose to flee the incident, but they fled in the worst way possible—they ignored what was happening, and they ignored their community.

By the time they had shut down their website with the offending ad? It was too late, the damage was done.

You (meaning any business or individual) CANNOT, repeat, CANNOT ignore issues today.

Anything that can be seen as damaging to you and your business needs to be addressed immediately, and you must have policies in place that will help your staffers determine which tactics they should use to help defuse the situation.

In today’s mobile and uber-connected world, PR and social media go hand-in-hand. And when you’re faced with a crisis it’s up to you to decide which response is best for your company…fight or flight?

But just remember—you’re not a caveman (or a boxer)—make sure the flight or fight responses you are drawing on are the modern day versions!

Stacey Hood

Gooner | Former Pro | Gentleman By Day | Philosopher at Night | Hooligan by Choice | Founder of Media Twente

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