How to Handle a PR Crisis

This is not a drill. In fact, it actually happened.

A company called – a non-profit company – and said they had lost a crucial endorsement from a national agency that provides oversight in its industry, impacting the non-profit’s ability to continue to operate. The agency’s decision not to endorse would send a negative signal to others in the industry, which could force the nonprofit to close. They understood that this was bad news, which is why they called us.

Of course, they had a lot of questions:

“What do we do now?”
“Should we talk to media?”
“Should we say anything internally?”
“If yes, what do we say?”
“How do we keep this from getting worse!?”

Welcome to the world of crisis communications, or, as we like to call it, another day at the office.

Before we discuss how we handled this situation, let’s talk about some of the elements that come into play when you’re dealing with a crisis.

The Power of Words

First things first. Listen to your mother and watch your language, please. It’s easy to label everything “bad” a crisis, but it’s not the best idea. Calling something a crisis tends to change the way it’s perceived and pump up everyone’s blood pressure. If you blur the lines between a crisis and your average not-so-good story, everything becomes, what they call in the business world, a bet-the-company case.

Here’s an example. To counter an outbreak of the flu, a number of schools voluntarily closed their doors. Certainly, announcing a number of school closures to the community isn’t good news, but it certainly isn’t a crisis. Compare this to a teacher being accused of inappropriate conduct with a student. There’s your crisis.

Remember, words matter. Calling something a crisis when it’s not can make a problem worse than it really is and make a solution harder to find.

 

Social Media Makes Everything Faster

In the old days – back when you had to physically put a piece of paper into a typewriter and literally bang out your talking points – you typically had the time to carefully think through and put together your action plan before carrying it out. Not so today. Want proof? Think of the recent emergency aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. In that case, a passenger was on Facebook Live broadcasting what had happened as the plane was coming in for a landing. The world was finding out about the emergency before Southwest corporate. In our social media-driven world, prep time is a luxury you won’t always have. Stories spread quickly, and your response will have to be just as quick.

And don’t be lulled into thinking that, because you haven’t received a call from a reporter, somehow everything is all right. On social media, a story about you and your company can gain momentum long before the media knows anything about it. In fact, very often, traditional media pick up stories they learn about from Facebook and Twitter.

Plan in Advance and Drill

To be most effective, crisis planning has to start now, before there’s a crisis to respond to. When there is a crisis, you want to be ready to jump into action as fast as possible, not starting from scratch. But remember, being fast doesn’t mean being sloppy. You can take a very strategic approach to putting your plan together.

Here are some simple steps to follow:

1. Identify what matters

Put together a list of problems your organization could potentially face. Be imaginative and comprehensive. What scares you? Prioritize what you come up with, so you can prepare for the most urgent problems first.

2. Identify your audiences

If the point before is “what matters,” this is “who matters.” Ask yourself: if we had to talk about this, who would we be speaking to? Your audience may be internal or external. Employees, vendors, clients and customers, the public; these are all people who may need to know.

3. List the questions

Once you’ve identified the issues and audiences, begin drawing up a list of questions reporters are likely to ask. Try and think like a reporter and not someone affiliated with any particular company. Reporters aren’t afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. A rule we like to follow goes like this: when a client says, “Oh, they’ll never ask that question,” that’s the first question we plan for. Put it down on the list.

4. Write out your answers

Now that you’ve got the questions, what are the answers? Write them down. And please avoid the trite, “We don’t comment on matters involving litigation.” In the communications world, that’s a crutch – one that companies and their spokespeople use when they want to avoid dealing with issues. Worse yet, people reading or hearing it translate it to mean either “They’re hiding” or “They’re scared.”

5. Designate a single spokesperson

It’s crucial that you designate one person to respond to the press, so the company’s message remains consistent and clear.

6. Identify clear lines of authority

Once you do this, ensure that everyone knows this chain of command to keep your crisis under control.

7. Consider a media training

If the person doing the speaking will benefit from it, take time to do some media training. Sit down and go through mock questions and answers just as if it were a real interview. Record them, play them back and be merciless in your constructive criticism.*

*A note on that last point. There was a time, not so long ago, when a client of ours in the retail sector decided it needed a spokesperson to respond to some expected media inquiries. Even though I’m the person at our company who ordinarily conducts the trainings, I decided to have others put me through the drill. What happened when we played back the mock interviews? Everyone in the room, even me, was taken aback at how defensive I became the moment the interviewer started asking questions. It was exactly the opposite of what the client wanted or needed in that situation. Training – practice – allowed us to see that, change the approach and be ready to handle the multiple media interviews that came our way.

Back to the Real World

Let’s go back to the example we mentioned at the very beginning, the one where the nonprofit was in trouble because a national oversight agency declined to provide a necessary endorsement.

In this case, we weren’t able to do anything in advance because the nonprofit didn’t seek our help until the problem was in front of it. When it did happen, they were tempted to keep the knowledge to themselves.

Our advice was the opposite. We told them that secrecy could undermine their credibility and that, eventually, the bad news would come out and people would be upset that they didn’t know about it sooner.

The organization took our advice and chose to be completely transparent, both with its own internal audiences and the news media. What happened? The group’s constituents rallied to its side and eventually, regulators provided the endorsement. And the business remained open and thriving.

Is every case going to be as clean and tidy as this? Absolutely not. Even in this example, there were peaks and valleys that don’t get their due in this shortened retelling. But by establishing a process and doing as much preparation as possible, companies can lower their risk, keep their important audiences informed and get back to the business they want to do sooner than they otherwise might.

Mike Androvett

President / CEOView Bio

Mark Annick

Vice President of News and Public RelationsView Bio

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