If you own a PR business, or are thinking of starting one, have you ever wondered, what’s the worst that could happen? Here’s the first piece in our new series – consider it a checklist on what not to do…

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” according to Warren Buffett. Nobody’s more aware of that than PR consultants – the people who make a living out of protecting and promoting their clients’ reputations. But just as there are many tricks to buffing a client’s image, there are also many ways for a PR to inadvertently tarnish it. Here are some.

Causing a social media storm

Many PR consultants now have responsibility for managing their clients’ social media accounts. It’s a great way for companies to engage in a direct conversation with their clients. But like any conversation it’s important to not offend or irritate the people you’re speaking to. Transport for London caused a storm by replying to an irate customer’s tweet about poor service by saying that he should “leave early” so he got to work on time. It prompted a flood of outraged comments from other passengers, and it was forced to make a red-faced apology.

Also, don’t think that you’re protecting your client’s image by simply deleting critical posts. It will only make the situation worse, as Nestlé discovered when it erased from its Facebook page many comments condemning how it sourced its palm oil supplies, following a Greenpeace campaign. Its action created a further barrage of criticism, and within months the company caved in to the growing pressure and changed its sourcing practices.

Trying to knobble hacks

As every good PR knows, it’s important to build a relationship with the journalists who cover your clients – even though it’s a relationship you can’t necessarily control. You might think that you are guaranteeing your client the maximum amount of positive exposure by stipulating to reporters how they cover a big event, in return for access to it, but that can easily rebound on both of you, as Mastercard found to its cost in 2014. Its PR team’s list of demands to journalists covering the Brits awards it sponsored were leaked, causing a backlash against its “Soviet” attempts at press control

Crisis mismanagement

When bad news is swirling and the media pack scents blood is when a PR consultant can really help to protect a client’s reputation. But in such a pressure-cooker atmosphere it can often be hard to know what to do for the best. There is a fine line between being criticised for being unresponsive and uncommunicative, and for being attacked for rushing to comment without having all the facts. Ask Dido Harding of TalkTalk. The decision for her to face the media soon after the hacker attack on its IT systems was announced last October was widely questioned, particularly as she was forced to admit in the interviews that the firm wasn’t sure at that stage what information had been stolen nor whether it was encrypted. It later turned out that the breach had been smaller than the company had first estimated.

Blogging and ghostwriting

Writing opinion pieces, columns and personal blogs for clients is increasingly part of a PR consultant’s everyday job. But you need to be careful. A CEO blogging about how he’s full of beans after his New Year Caribbean break is sure to go down badly with staff who have been told they won’t get a pay rise. And executives take very different attitudes to ghostwritten pieces: some are happy for a PR to write everything for them, while others will expect to be consulted on the content and to approve the copy. So, just because the chairman doesn’t want to see pieces written in his name before they go out, you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that neither will the managing director.

Making a mistake in a press release

Preparing press releases is the meat and drink of every PR consultant, but mistakes can easily be made, especially if you’re working to a tight deadline. Putting the wrong date or an incorrect telephone number on a release about a local restaurant’s opening night could ruin its hopes to generate some extra bookings from the press campaign. While at the other end of the spectrum, the Chairman of a FTSE 100 corporation is never likely to see the funny side if you spell his name wrongly.

Letting slip confidential information

Apart from simple cock-ups in releases, misunderstandings can easily arise between a client and PR consultant about what information can be released to the press. A client might disclose commercially sensitive information to its PR agency, such as on pricing, customers or sales targets, when briefing the agency on a new product it is launching, which would cause consternation if that information were mistakenly included in journalist briefings.

Causing an investor panic

Financial PR brings its own issues, as companies whose shares or debt are publicly traded have an obligation to update investors on events that could have an impact on their business. Such public announcements need to be made quickly, probably within 72 hours of the event occurring. If not, the company – and its directors – could face stiff penalties.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Nobody wants an irate client, but for PR consultants the effects of a slip-up can go far beyond simply losing a retainer. The client might refuse to pay for the work you’ve done, or could even demand the return of fees it has already paid you, claiming that you have not provided the services that you promised. Worse, you might face a large legal claim if a corporate client argues that your actions prompted a slump in its share price or materially damaged its reputation.

What would be the worst thing that could happen to your business, PR or otherwise? Share in the comments.

Hiscox offers a range of business insurance from professional indemnity to public liability.