3 Valuable Crisis PR Lessons From LouFest
In the dark, predawn hours of September 5, LouFest — an eight-year-running celebration of food, music, and the city of St. Louis — died. The partners running the event announced the festival was canceled less than four days before the first acts were to take the stage, leaving ticket-holders angry and vendors scrambling to offload surplus inventory.
For many, this might seem like the beginnings of a PR crisis, but for this organization, it was the middle of a disaster that had already been picking up steam.
Fans took to social media in July and August, complaining that the lineup release was taking longer than usual. Soon after, early ticket holders started to question when they would receive their tickets in the mail, only to find out later they would have to pick them up at will-call. The crisis officially kicked off when St. Louis Public Radio reported, one week before the start of the festival, that contractors were pulling out, citing “overdue payments.”
LouFest denied the claims and pressed forward — insisting that all was well — until the moment they announced the cancellation.
If you find yourself in a crisis, and you don’t have a crisis communications plan, these three lessons can help guide your efforts to restore your reputation.
1. Be Transparent
After St. Louis Public Radio reported that some contractors had pulled out, LouFest tweeted everything was “100% good to go.” Organizers reiterated the same message to the media. A response in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch read, “It’s not true. Everything is good to go. We’re on track and on schedule to have another great LouFest.” KMOV quoted Owner Mike Van Hee saying, “We’re on track, we’re ahead of schedule, Main Stage rolls in on Tuesday.” They maintained the sentiment until the cancelation.
Anyone who has produced an event knows last-minute changes are inevitable. The key, however, is to remain transparent. By explaining the adjustments, you quell the concerns and uneasiness of your ticket holders, music acts, and vendors. A lack of transparency can, at best, leave a bad taste in the public’s mouth. The more likely scenario is you look like you’re trying to hide something which erodes trust — something music festivals live or die by. Worst-case, you come off as a liar and lose all credibility.
2. Don’t Play The “Blame Game”
Listen Live Entertainment, LouFest's parent company, released a letter giving three reasons they canceled the festival: a list of financial hurdles, “a bit of unfortunately timed media coverage,” and “the fickle St. Louis weather.” The response was less than positive. In the Post-Dispatch, a musician stated he was disappointed in LouFest for “not taking any responsibility for any of the clear issues occurring.” The media laughed that the festival would blame them for doing their job, and ticket holders flooded social media in disbelief.
When you issue a statement, four specific elements are needed. The two most important — a blameless explanation of the situation, and an acknowledgment of responsibility — were missing in this letter. Think about an apology you’ve received. Are you more likely to forgive the person who owns up to their mistakes or one who passes blame to others? You’re more likely to choose the former because taking responsibility produces sincerity and trustworthiness.
3. Exceed Your Public’s Expectations
After the announcement, St. Louisans sprang into action, picking up the broken pieces of the defunct festival. The one voice missing? LouFest. Instead of pioneering the efforts to help reschedule music acts and assist vendors with excess inventory, the organization went silent for almost two days. It finally posted a message on its social media thanking the community for the support of their musicians, vendors, and partners. Some people were quick to forgive, yet others pointed out that these efforts wouldn't be needed if the festival canceled earlier.
Paying off debts and offering refunds is the least an organization can do. You can certainly do this, but you risk missing a vital opportunity. The company people remember and learn to trust again is the one that apologizes and proves it. What could LouFest have done differently? The organization needed to be involved with “In-LieuFest” by taking care of the people they affected. Work with other events to start talks for vendors. Compile a list of music venues and resources for musicians. These "above and beyond" steps can mean the difference between maintaining a negative public perception, or the beginning of rebuilding your reputation.
As you deal with a situation, these three lessons should be at the cornerstone of your actions. Why are these so important? Most brands experience financial hits during a crisis — rapid sales decline, faltering stock worth, or a public boycott. Crisis communications can help stabilize the downward spiral, and extremely effective strategies can even leave a company better off than when the crisis started.