In less than a week, political radio host Rush Limbaugh has seen upwards of 30 sponsors flee his radio program. Their migration began in response to a public boycott campaign which has relied heavily on social media.

The actions and inactions of Limbaugh and the companies involved provide lessons for marketers in how to respond to crises, buy media and even outflank competitors.

Rush Limbaugh is a widely known radio and television personality in the US, where between 2 and 20 (estimates vary wildly) million people tune in to cheer his views or get incensed by them. Recently, Limbaugh made controversial comments concerning a young woman who testified before Congress on questions of health insurance and contraception. In the week since the event, the public outcry and a call for sponsor boycotts has resulted in over 30 companies publicly severing ties with his programs.

Insights benefit from time and distance, but it’s also interesting to watch an event in the wild. Search for terms like #boycottrush, #standwithrush and related company feeds, including @oreck, @carbonite, @netflix and others.

1. If you’re going to apologize, apologize.

Limbaugh tried to end the furor with an apology that started off sounding like it was written by a lawyer, and then circled back to reinforce some of the same points that had started the controversy. The media – mainstream and social alike – attacked the language and the net effect was another round of criticism.

Companies that find themselves in the wrong can learn a lot from politicians of all stripes. Most examples are studies in bad public relations; peccadilloes that might be quickly forgiven and forgotten are hidden unsuccessfully and become scandals of trust. But politicians that get in front of issues and admit them tend to survive. Then Senator Obama made his drug experiences public early in the presidential campaign, suffered very little in the moment, and never had serious issues on that front.

The truth is that people – customers – forgive mistakes. JetBlue continues to be one of the most successful and beloved airlines despite having experienced its share of public mistakes. A key to that recovery was the stark wording of CEO David Neeleman’s apology after the 2007 stranded passenger fiasco:

We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry…You deserved better – a lot better – from us last week and we let you down. Nothing is more important than regaining your trust.

That language is a sharp contrast to the norm, where companies attempt to soften realities and protect their legal position. If there’s anything the internet generation is good at, it’s decoding language on a screen. Why invite more failure?

2. Ostriches don’t bother, and it won’t work for you

In fairness to ostriches, they don’t actually bury their hands in the sand, because they’re not dumb (another myth), but some companies try the same non-tactic. Netflix is one of the advertisers targeted by the #boycottrush effort. Despite being a very public brand that has had its share of PR troubles in the last year, Netflix appears to be taking the road no one else is on; ignoring the problem. Below is an image of Netflix’ Facebook page, contrasted with its wall. As customer after customer posted on one side or another of the Limbaugh affair (a majority calling for cutting ties), the company’s only post for the day highlighted a newly available exercise video.

This is not to say that Netflix has remained silent across all of its channels; they’ve had an active response in traditional media, claiming recent ads were placed in error as part of a network buy through their agency. However, to ignore social channels is to ignore your customers in the place they expect you to be most transparent and responsive. Facebook and Twitter are where people go to voice their concerns and you need to be there, listening and responding.

3. Charged content shocks some brands more than others

Marketers know that media carries risks when it uses strong opinion or racy content to generate its audience. Political and moral objections are powerful, highly viral and magnetic for the media. But the danger is more acute for some brands than others.

Consider two companies targeted in the #boycottrush campaign, Oreck and Netflix. Both companies have experienced waves of criticism, although it’s not entirely clear whether they are, or intended to be, intentional sponsors of Limbaugh’s programming. But aside from their media buying decisions and response to the matter, the two companies face very different degrees of risk.

Oreck, a vacuum manufacturer, is unlikely to see long term damage, because vacuums have an average lifespan of a decade or more. Although sales might dip in the immediate wake of these events, relatively few people are in-market for a vacuum in the month or so that any PR crisis might last. As time passes, so do the passions of the moment. A strong response, like Oreck’s, to the complaints across all channels, will probably result in little damage for future shoppers.

For Netflix, the problem is potentially far worse, because there’s not much that stands between their customers and a new provider. On-demand and rental video is a lively marketplace, with major players including Amazon, Apple and Blockbuster. The hard cost of transfer is minimal and worse, people can react to their feelings immediately with their wallets. For companies that offer online services, or any other product that’s easily shed or transferred, bad PR can have swift and long lasting impact.

3.5 Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Along the same lines, once a PR crisis like Limbaugh’s has taken hold, someone is going to be unhappy no matter what the company does. Watching the Twitter stream of any targeted companies (some of whom may have been innocent of sponsoring in the first place) reveals that opinions aren’t one sided. As companies have publicly pulled their support, customers on the other side of the debate have weighed in. A semi-scientific study of several Twitter steams (@Oreck, @Netflix and @Carbonite) suggests that while most comments are on the side of the boycotters, roughly 20% of responses are incensed at their pulling ads on Limbaugh’s program.

4. One brand’s loss is another’s terrain

A search for @netflix on Twitter reveals several things. First, the stream is humming with activity, mostly from livid customers. Second, there is no response from the company itself. At the same time that their customers are seeking information about the reality of their ad buys, Netflix is choosing to punt (although we agree that Mel Brooks is the cat’s pajamas). Finally, and most surprising, the promoted tweet that leads the column is from a prime competitor, Blockbuster.

When PR crises hit, it’s an opportunity for the competition. Companies should seek to control what they can, and that means covering the major digital bases for the duration of the emergency. Brands can be assured that the attention is going to create spikes in search and social activity, and they should have a fast response media buy ready to deploy. Otherwise, competitors can take advantage as Blockbuster does here.

These lessons are likely just scratching the surface. What have you learned from this or other crises? Do you believe the effects are important or just passing flashes? Let us know.