A PR crisis is underway – yikes!

Perhaps a social media post has gone viral in the wrong way; a senior member of your team has said – or done – something unwise; there’s been an accident or major incident; a product is unsafe and needs to be recalled; or customers have been treated poorly. Whatever the issue, it’s moved beyond the concerns of an individual or a manageable group. The press and the public are very interested. Your response will affect your company’s reputation. It’s time to bring out your crisis plan!

If you haven’t got one, you’re not alone – these guidelines will help. But please don’t wait until it’s too late. By setting aside a few minutes to think about how you would deal with a crisis now, you’ll be much better placed to react when the pressure is on.  

What to do in a PR crisis

The following assumes you’re part of a team. If not, more rests on you, but you can do this!

  • Stay calm.
  • Focus. Don’t ignore what’s happened – make this your number one priority.
  • Respond quickly, well within an hour, making sure your response is considered. You’ll find help with your initial statement below.
  • Establish the facts. Ask the right people for help and information.
  • Be there for your team when the chips are down and expect them to be there for you. Don’t vanish without explanation.
  • Delegate all you can. Is your communications list up to date? Ask someone to quickly review it and identify the people who can help get your response out.
  • Empathise! Bring your instincts into play. Quickly assess the fall out for those directly and indirectly affected and on your brand reputation.
  • Nominate a press spokesperson and make sure everyone knows where to direct enquiries.
  • Be proportionate. If this is a major concern for the public, make sure the head of the organization will be available to make a statement. If it’s a social media issue that’s got out of hand, the head of department may be more appropriate.
  • Communicate. Inform staff and stakeholders who need to know immediately – ideally before they hear from other sources or are surprised by a request for information from the press.
  • Brief customer-facing staff so they understand the issues and know what to say if customers raise the subject.
  • Monitor social media. It can help you identify specific concerns and gauge the temperature of public opinion.
  • Be prepared to dedicate more time until things settle down. You may need to address the concerns of management, employees and other stakeholders, customers, suppliers, media contacts and members of the public, as well as those directly affected.
  • Most important of all: learn lessons. Resolve any issues that led to the crisis to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • When things calm down, review how you managed the crisis in PR terms – what would you do differently next time?
Your initial statement
  • Make a genuine, compassionate statement that makes it clear that you empathise with the effects on others.
  • Say sorry. Keep it simple.
  • Accept responsibility. It’s not the same as admitting blame.
  • Explain what went wrong.
  • Be open and honest. If there are overwhelming personal, operational or legal reasons to keep some information confidential, make this clear.
  • Don’t speculate. If you don’t have all the facts and have no realistic chance of getting them quickly, make that clear in your initial response.
  • Share what you know and outline the steps you will be taking to gather any missing information.
  • Explain what action people affected should take, if any.
  • Show that your company will put things right and will be carrying out a full review. And remember, actions speak louder than words.
  • If appropriate, explain when you will issue an update and be available for comment again.
Extra tips
  • In a written statement, make your apology a direct quote, attributed to a named individual. Add details of their role in the company.
  • In a televised statement, visual messages are important. If your spokesperson looks excitable, agitated, unprepared or unsure, that’s what will be conveyed, whatever they say.
  • Choose your words thoughtfully. Don’t say ‘sorry for any inconvenience caused’, though the cliché will spring to mind. If there has clearly been some distress or inconvenience, why appear to dispute or belittle it? Simply substituting ‘the’ for ‘any’ is better.
When a big news story breaks
  • You might be able to control the agenda if you’re powerful and well-connected enough, but don’t bank on it. You may feel more like you’re surfing a wave or diverting it to a more appropriate target.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of treating the press as your enemy when things go wrong. If this is a significant news story, reporters are under pressure to get something out quickly, especially if they represent breaking news outlets.
  • Put yourself in their shoes – they are usually looking for a minimum of a couple of sentences from a named representative.
  • It may appear, in the heat of the moment, as if the story is all about your organization. It isn’t. You’re just a part of the news jigsaw – other people’s points of views are just as important to the press.
  • Others may advise differently, but my advice is never to say ‘No comment’ in a crisis situation if you can avoid it. You have an ongoing relationship with these people – or rather their organizations, as the news reporter is probably different from your usual contact.
  • Ask yourself if you’d prefer journalists to speculate reasons for your silence and fill in the gaps themselves, or to take charge of your own destiny, speak for yourself and make sure the facts are heard.
  • Media outlets will continue to quote the original sources long after further clarification has been issued. The nationals may pick up stories from regional press and print them, if not verbatim, essentially the same.
  • If you’ve never experienced it before, you’ll be surprised to see how rapidly the story is dispersed, with or without your comments, and how difficult it can be to raise interest in any follow up statements you might issue once the story has been published and becomes yesterday’s news.
  • Social media will spread rumours, especially in the absence of confirmed information. Don’t feel you need to respond to every rumour, but do monitor your most important channels, including Facebook and Twitter, so you can assess the way the tide of opinion is flowing.
  • It’s amazing how many major organizations neglect to do this. I’ve watched the BBC sail blithely on, digging themselves into a deeper and deeper hole, completely unaware of a Twitter storm when a simple acknowledgement and response could have made all the difference.
In a crisis, PR is invaluable

I challenge anyone to accurately calculate the value of any individual PR exercise in sales and brand reputation. This is an ongoing issue for PR professionals. I’ve seen far too many press articles being valued by press monitoring services at hundreds of thousands of pounds, purely from the advertised page values, and thought ‘I wish!’.

But in a crisis, a skilful PR response – combined with a genuinely caring, reputable company ethos – can add value in anyone’s terms.

We all make mistakes. What sets us apart is how we deal with them. By showing you are responsive; contrite; able to take control of a crisis; are listening to those affected; and taking responsibility to resolve the issues, you’ll not just be limiting the damage: you can even enhance your brand’s reputation.

Think about your crisis plan

A plan can help you spot and avert a developing PR crisis or prevent it from worsening. I’m planning to share advice about this soon. Meanwhile, save this somewhere and hope never to need it!

Good luck!

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