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How to handle a PR crisis

There are two main types of PR crisis businesses face; the catastrophic kind (known as a “sudden” or “hard” crisis), for example a train crash and the slow burn type (known as a “smouldering” or “soft” crisis) typified by creeping deterioration of a company’s reputation due to one particular issue or a series of issues.

A sudden crisis is easy to spot – soft ones are often far harder to pinpoint. When exactly did an issue first start to undermine the company? As a result, they are often far harder to define and resolve. The other key difference between the two is that usually management teams know about a smouldering crisis well before it becomes public.

And while we can all recall examples of the catastrophic kind as a result of the media attention they attract, the truth is that they only account for around six per cent of all crises according to the Institute of Crisis Management.

We will examine the “smouldering crisis” in a separate article. For the purposes of this article we will look at the “sudden” variety – how should we deal with them and what can we learn from recent events?

The following steps have been proven to be effective in negating the PR damage from a sudden crisis and help contribute towards positive crisis resolution:

1. Good preparation

By their very nature, we can expect very little warning of a “sudden” crisis, therefore preparation is everything. A disaster recovery plan is your insurance policy for the brand. This doesn’t mean planning for every possible type of disaster – but it does mean having a plan and knowing how to implement that plan when disaster strikes.
It should include the company’s crisis strategy, details of the ‘crisis management team’ and contact details including out of hours and media contacts. In addition, have you got a plan for posting notices on your website out of hours, have you thought about potential issues for your company in a disaster situation, do key personnel have a copy of the plan at home and have you tested the plan for real?

2. Get the facts

In a crisis information is critical. The crisis management team should represent all the relevant disciplines within the business and should be able to provide you with crucial data. You should consult your legal experts but prepare to be firm with them about the need to give certain information to the media. Be wary about getting talked into a “no comment” situation on legal grounds.

3. Be timely, open and honest

Act quickly and get your priorities right. If lives are in danger then that is your number one concern. Consumers will never forgive a negligent brand.

This is where the classic hands up, open and honest, withdraw the product and apologise approach is rooted. It can be hard to stomach for some execs but sometimes the best case scenario is the company itself reporting the bad news. Being proactive prevents the company from being put in a weakened, defensive position.

One of the worst environmental accidents in history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, is generally regarded as one of the worst managed in history because of the lack of coordination between management, operations and communications. It took CEO Lawrence Rawl two weeks to visit the scene and make any kind of substantive statement regarding the tragedy. Be prepared to host regular press briefings and work with emergency services – they will have more experience of disaster communications scenarios and handling the press in such situations.

And remember; this isn’t the time for spin and fluff – the media won’t be distracted with some other lame unrelated story – your watchwords should be; “when you are in a hole, stop digging” or “when you are in a corner, it’s no good spinning”.

Often the facts can be hard to ascertain in the initial period and if you don’t know the answer you need to say that you do not know but that you are trying to find out what has happened.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate

In a crisis, the media devours information. If they can’t get it from you they will get it from someone else. Who would you rather they got their “facts” from: your competitors, your staff, eye witnesses, CCTV or mobile phone camera footage? Control the release of information and you stand a chance of controlling the story.

This doesn’t mean divulging potentially damaging information immediately – if particular information is not yet in the public domain, you are within your rights to not disclose it but, be truthful and be aware that you may need to disclose it at some point.

5. Be sincere

Great companies understand public opinion and take it very seriously. In a crisis you need to be able to quickly take onboard the public view and stay in touch with it. Doing the bare minimum is barely good enough. You should aim to exceed public expectations in every aspect of managing the crisis.

If there is ‘public concern’ or a risk to the public, then that is your major concern – not your share price. If there has been a fatality, then that becomes your context for all comment. No one wants to hear that you are having a hard time – they just want to know that you are concerned and are doing everything you can to put the situation right.

6. See it through

Don’t be complacent just because the world’s media is no longer camped out at your front door. Journalists have a habit of diarising events and coming back to them six months on or a year later. This process is often prompted by your competitors who may be more than happy to point out that something still hasn’t been implemented or corrected.

This is where your role, as the person who understands how the media works is key, and your voice needs to be heard at the highest level until a crisis has been worked through, completely.

7. Learn from disasters

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.

Friedrich Nietzsche probably wasn’t thinking about crisis PR planning when he said it but it helps us come full circle in terms of handling PR crises. All the pain we went through to deal with a crisis is of no use whatsoever if we don’t take some learning from it and improve the way we do things as a company and, improve our crisis PR plan.
It is worth remembering that a brand that fundamentally puts its customers and their safety first will always be allowed a crisis from time to time. A brand that doesn’t seem to care, may not.