The big “Oops” – Tips for recovering from a mistake in your small business

Everyone makes mistakes in the work place. Things go astray. Murphy’s Law appears in multiples. I don’t think there’s one small business owner who hasn’t made one big mistake at one point in time. There isn’t one proprietor out there who hasn’t been victim to something gone wrong, intended or otherwise. How your handle the big “Oops,” how you rectify what happens, and what you take away from it separates the pros from the novices.

I had my first “Big Oops” when I was 21. I was managing the box-office at Wolf Trap, a large open-air theatre with 5,000 seats outside Washington, DC. The Metropolitan Opera was coming for a weeklong engagement, and the requests for tickets were overwhelming. I had authorized the sale of several large blocks of tickets to groups before public sales (standard practice). No one had predicted the volume of sales. We were sold out in hours. The media came to do the big “Wow–opera is popular” story; I mentioned the group sales, and the story turned against the box-office, to the effect that “big corporations were keeping tickets from John and Jane Q. Public.”

I was naive about working with the media, and my honesty about the groups turned the situation ugly. I was sure I’d be fired, but I 1) painfully took responsibility for the situation with my superiors, and 2) thought of a way to solve the problem. My supervisors approved of my solution, which worked to a degree. My job was saved.

The take-away: I shouldn’t have offered the information on the groups. One doesn’t have to reveal everything to be honest and open with the media. I could have said that ticket sales were overwhelming (they were) and that opera is popular (it is). With experience, I’ve become more adept at answering media questions with a bit more savvy.

Another “Big Oops.” Flash forward 20 years. I now have a shopping center as a client. They’re owned by a distinguished national chain of retailers, and very adept at marketing and public relations. My shopping center is in between marketing directors. One afternoon, the manager calls me. There had been a shooting in a remote parking lot owned by the company, and the TV news crews were on the scene reporting “Shooting in the mall.”

When I got to the mall (no cellphones on the scene yet), the police filled me in on the facts–the shooting involved a couple (married to other people) who parked their cars in a remote part of the parking lot, and took one car to a nearby “no tell” motel. A jealous spouse shot one of the lovers.

The police agreed to handle all inquiries; my job in this Oops moment, not of my own doing, was to get the TV stations to correct their story from “Shooting in the mall” or “shooting at the mall” to “shooting near the mall.”  One station was understanding and quickly adaptive; the other not so quick. The take-away: Every business from large to small must have a crisis public relations plan in place for a variety of possible scenarios one might encounter. A spokesperson must be chosen in advance. Clear communications must be established.

In the Big Oops #1, I created the moment; in the Big Oops #2, the moment was created by others. In both cases, I was the hopeful solution to the problem.

When something goes wrong, here’s what to do:

1. Take responsibility for the problem. If you created the mistake, own up to it. Sometimes, “the customer is always right” motto is the answer. If you sold something faulty, delivered a mediocre meal, provided a service that was under-appreciated or under-valued, saying “we made an error and we want to make-good” is a start. A refund, an exchange of a product, an opportunity to sample something again “on the house” should show that you’re doing your best.

2. If you have a solution to the problem, offer it. Proactive behavior helps ease the stress of the moment. Reactive behavior can often make things worse. Start with acknowledging the scope of the problem. Offer the fix. Or offer to find the expert who can fix the problem. If you can’t participate in righting the wrong, you’re not an asset to your business. Don’t make excuses or shift the blame. All that matters is that you are going to fix the problem.

3. The most important “take-away” from any situation is working towards a contingency plan that deals with that situation, should it ever happen again. A trained spokesperson would have dealt with the media in my big Oops #1. A crisis management plan would have helped with the Big Oops #2. Proactively identify the potential problems you may have, and figure out a plan to deal with each one. Keep the plan flexible, because the situation may vary each time.

Example? You schedule a winter concert each year. What if it snows? Do you 1) purchase snow insurance so you can offer refunds and cover costs in inclement weather? (Yes, you can buy weather insurance.), or 2) schedule a snow date up-front?. This happened to one of my clients, although it was summer concerts and rain insurance was involved. The client did both. Luckily, it didn’t rain.

Example? You plan a reception. The caterer needs to know a head count on X-date. X-date rolls around, and your number is low, but people who say they’re coming haven’t RSVP’d. How do you plan for the crowd, knowing you’ll be charged for the food if no one shows, or short on food, if you under-order? (A really good caterer knows the answer/) We work with a caterer and a menu that can easily be increased last minute. The caterer uses a formula to determine no-shows.

Example? You plan a brochure mailing of 100,000. You decide to save money and order the printing done in China, and contract a mail-house near the dock in California. The brochures arrive, and they’re printed upside down! Do you 1) demand a re-order (it will take six weeks) or 2 ) find a good printer in California? This actually happened to a client of mine. The re-print in California saved the day, but cost the client about 25% more than if he had ordered locally in the first place; and getting a refund from China wasn’t going to be easy.

4. Realize that you may lose the customer, the client, or the connection. If you’ve learned from a big “Oops,” you’ll be able to rebuild if you don’t make the same mistake or allow the same situation to happen again.


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.


  1. Amir Khashru says:

    Yes that's right every business from large to small must have a crisis public relations plan in place for a variety of possible scenarios one might encounter. PR pros can handle situations very carefully. Most important in any marketing is monitoring results. Our panxpan software helps users monitor and analyze their results. So how many Pr releases over time, amount spent on PR over time, number of people reached and number of conversions gained.

Leave a Reply

The Self-Employment Survival Guide can help you succeed. Learn all about it here.

Self-Employment Survival Guide book cover