As we move into a new year, dealing with public relations challenges is something a number of our clients are concerned with. There are multiple sources for managing bad PR, but every organization can benefit from some basic strategies. Our team collaborates with clients to help them through challenges. Easy access to the websites, blogs, and Twitter can help create viral problems for people and organizations. There are plenty of examples of a PR crisis every year, and there are lessons to be learned. One of the most interesting is that many firms just ignore the possibilities of something bad taking place. Not knowing how to counter, manage, and dilute a crisis can have long term affects – we’ve seen people lose their jobs, sales, and other issues as a result of not managing a PR crisis appropriately.
To help the conversation on crisis management get started, here are some of our basic rules for consideration:
1. Be Prepared! — When we ask our clients, “what are your biggest issues of concern,” they typically come up with a list of potential problems. When I ask, “how have you prepared?” – we’re often told, “we hope we don’t have to deal with this.” Crisis management is often about speed. If you’ve prepared for potential problems by having an action plan, pre-planned statements, and appropriate staff or managers ready to support you, you’ll be better prepared to stop the spread of the crisis. As a simple example, a newspaper will often write up obituaries for famous people. They aren’t dead yet. But, in the event they do die, the newspaper wants to be first to share the details that people will want to know. Certainly there are blanks to fill in, but if the background data is complete, then the process if much easier to manage.
2. There is no Excuse for Being Unprepared — For those of you who are familiar with the book, The Art of War, you already know that “readiness is all.” For reasons I cannot fathom, most of the companies we work with, and public entities in particular are reactionary – they don’t have the necessary plans in place for public relations management. There may be a crisis plan, but it’s outdated, isn’t related to the current management, or is incomplete. It can take years to build a strong reputation. It can take hours to bring it all down. Don’t let the priorities of daily activities interfere with your readiness.
3. Know the Answers to Questions Before They are Asked — When something goes wrong, the media (or employees, clients, etc.) will often try to “fill in the blanks” for information they don’t have. How often have you seen a story on a crisis modified a day or two later – that’s because the facts may be different than the expectations or assumptions. What will you be asked in the event of a significant issue? One thing we do is to create a “media role-playing engagement.” We take the top five threats and then pose journalist-style questions to our client’s management or PR team. These are hard questions – the what, why, how, when and where issues. We can do this exercise question by question rapid-fire. So, in just a few hours, you can have the answers to potentially critical questions in place before you need them.
4. Don’t Say Anything if You’re Winging it — One of the key issues PR people in particular fail at is knowing when to shut up. We often hear from them, “well, I was telling the truth.” The problem with that is there may be more than one truth. Imagine a ball that is red on one side and blue on the other. When held up, you see the blue side. So, you might say, “the ball is blue.” That would be true – but only from your perspective. The ball is also red – but you weren’t aware of that, so when questioned, saying the ball is blue will lead to your credibility being slammed into the ground – making it that much more challenging for anyone to believe anything else that you say. It’s better to say, “we know there is a ball and we’re working on getting you the information you want about its color.”
5. Teamwork doesn’t mean Group-Think — A common problem in a PR crisis is to have all of the management collectively work on all decisions. There isn’t time, and there will be subjective opinion about response, so a group decision making process DURING a crisis will often lead to failure. The management team should pre-plan for a crisis and have a “quick start” book or policy in place (we can help with that). From there, when an issue arises, the management team meets and reviews the plan – and then individuals take the responsibility of managing the crisis. The management team must be kept informed, but there must be individuals with the authority to take actions that will move the problem forward, and hopefully to a successful conclusion.
6. 48 Hours — It’s commonly recognized that most crisis situations are most fluid during the initial 48 hours. If you haven’t gotten ahead of the issue within that timeframe, it’s likely the problem will run you over. This goes back to the idea that if the media or public don’t have the information they need, they’ll fill in the blanks on their own. Communicate often, and do so with integrity – and with proper content. You can never over-communicate – but you can say the wrong things, so understand the difference and ensure you start a 48 hour clock whenever an issue arises.
7. Get Outside Help, and Use It — Many organizations tend to shut the doors and windows when there is a crisis. This is particularly true of public or government organizations. These entities think they can manage everything internally. Internal politics boil to the surface when a crisis occurs, and it can be challenging to overcome that – unless you get an outsider’s perspective. Experienced and strong leaders expect the politics and use an outsider’s perspective who can share their opinion without undue bias. Bringing in an outsider is not a sign of weakness. It just means you are smart enough to recognize a potential liability and are smart enough to do something about it.
8. The Court vs the Court — Many organizations turn to their attorneys in the event of a crisis. The problem therein is that a court of law is not the court of public opinion. In a court of law, there are options – briefs, time to prepare, research, and if you don’t get your way, an appeal. There is rarely an appeal in the court of public opinion. The most basic question is: What is the smartest strategy to protect our “brand” and to dilute this crisis? Remember, you can win your case in a court of law and be hated by the public. Both courts are important, but knowing which one to focus on during a crisis is essential.
9. Opportunity Knocks — A crisis may open the door to new opportunities. Smart leaders know that whenever there is a crisis, exposure to you and your brand is elevated. There is clearly risk involved in this process, but risk is part of every opportunity. Don’t miss the chance to capitalize on a crisis, but plan for it in advance.
10. Renew, Renew, Renew — The world of media is changing every 90 days or so. Social media is driving much of this change. When you create a plan, renew it every year, if not every six months. Any time you change managers or leadership within the scope of PR, review and renew. A crisis plan is not something that should be checked off a to-do list. It can be as important as your organization’s leadership – because frankly, if you don’t manage the crisis well, your leadership may change, regardless of whether you want that outcome or not.
Our team is prepared to discuss how these issues can be managed in advance. We have a unique combination of journalists, videographers, writers, and PR people on our staff. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact us.