By David Lasker
The ability to poetically polish press releases is certainly valued by the public relations industry. In fact, making mundane information meaningful on a daily basis is the lifeblood of many a PR career. Truth be told, though, nothing will test the essential skills of PR professionals like a full-blown PR crisis — and they’re inevitable in many industries.
If you are a young PR professional and are called upon to handle or manage communications during such a crisis, it is natural to be a bit unnerved. After all, your company’s reputation, and perhaps even its survival, might be riding on the PR response.
Preparation is the key to handling crisis communications with confidence, especially for the inexperienced. Not every potential scenario can be anticipated, but you can learn a lot by reading case studies. Following some basic principles also will form a solid foundation for responding to many situations. Here are some guidelines to help you view PR crises not as reasons to panic but as opportunities for professional growth.
Brainstorm in advance. Gather company officials and identify circumstances that could trigger a PR crisis. Manufacturers, for example, should be prepared in the event a product is determined faulty. Health care providers face liability issues for improper care. Any industry can be susceptible to claims of discriminatory practices or sexual harassment. Formulating response strategies in advance (and putting them in writing) for as many troubling scenarios as possible will save you from having to rely on spontaneity while under duress. Part of the overall strategy should be selecting a response team, a chain of command and a primary spokesperson — who should be trained as such. Also, determine in advance how to communicate with internal stakeholders as the PR crisis is developing. Everyone needs to know whether updates will be shared via email, text or phone call.
Determine the scope of media coverage. When an actual crisis is developing, you have to know what’s being said about your company, where and by whom. Is the incident that triggered the PR crisis national news, or is the backlash limited to social media? A media monitoring service can help you track this information.
Be transparent and act quickly. Get in front of the situation to the extent possible while details are still being gathered. It’s a best practice to at least explain that your company is investigating the issue at hand. Outline the reason(s) for the delay. It typically is helpful to prepare “generic” statements for preliminary use until more information is available. For example, a statement could contain verbiage along these lines: “The company is aware of the situation. We share your concerns. We are investigating and cooperating with all relevant agencies and will provide more information as it becomes available.”
Determine which communication channels to use. If a preliminary response has been issued, take the time to determine the best follow-up route. Will company officials make themselves available for interviews? Options also include a mix of news releases, news conferences, direct social media exchanges with the general public and more.
Display a human touch. If the PR crisis is based on a tragedy, it’s important to be empathetic without admitting any company fault. Being too robotic can create the impression that your company is indifferent to the circumstances. The public will appreciate knowing that people with real human emotions are working to correct issues that might be within the company’s control. If a public appearance is part of the response, such as at the site of an incident, anticipate the dynamics of the audience. If there’s anger over the situation, understand ahead of time that being confrontational won’t help, for instance.
Practice. If it’s practical, staging a crisis is the closest you can get to gaining experience before an actual PR crisis hits. No detail is too small to practice, right down to mastering your body language for a public appearance.
While a developing PR crisis can leave you wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, try to remember that your company has confidence in your abilities — otherwise you wouldn’t have been hired. Limited experience doesn’t have to be a handcuff if you are prepared.