Fresh eyes

Seven tips for managing a PR crisis

7 tips for managing a PR crisis
Andrew Taylor Senior PR & Comms Manager

Written by Andrew Taylor,
PR & Communications Director at Freshfield

Companies that respond well to a crisis make it look like an art form, but in reality it’s mainly about being well-prepared and well-drilled.

Handled well, organisations come away from a crisis with their credibility intact and often enhanced. Handled badly, it can overwhelm a business. Ultimately, the aim of a crisis plan is to enable an organisation to operate effectively and to allow for everyday business to continue.

After more than 10 years in PR and journalism, and as a keen observer of how organisations deal with crises, I have outlined some top tips below for managing them.

  1. Plan for all eventualities

A crisis can be defined as an event or issue that poses a threat to an organisation or individual. There’s often an element of surprise with action required in a tight timeframe. A crisis could be something as innocuous as a burst water main flooding your office, or something more sinister, such as a hack of your IT system. You should assess the different types of threats to the business and how to mitigate them. Identify who will be in your crisis team and how you will brief the media, staff, customers and other stakeholders. Crises can happen at any time and usually do so in the middle of the night or over the holidays, so make sure you have a crisis team on standby out of hours, which includes members of the communications team.

  1. Stress test your ability to communicate in a crisis

This will not only test your operational procedures, but also your communications readiness. In a previous role at a transport business, we created a mock crisis scenario in which a coach with 50 passengers on board ‘crashed on the M6’. We enrolled colleagues to play the part of the emergency services, relatives, and members of the press. We bombarded the staff in the control centre, the CEO and other directors with difficult phone calls that had been scripted. They knew this test was coming, but not when. How they reacted was a useful barometer of our preparedness for a crisis. You can repeat the exercise later to track progress and review processes.

  1. Don’t make communications an afterthought

Management teams facing a crisis will often only consider it from an operational viewpoint, alerting the communications team at the last minute just before bad news leaks or a major announcement needs to be made. Effective communication is an organisation’s best tool in dealing with a crisis. It is therefore important to have trusted PR professionals on board at the earliest stage, be that an in-house team or external advisers.

  1. Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself

This was a strategy employed successfully by the White House press office during the Clinton administration and revealed by former White House lawyer Lanny J. Davies in his memoirs. This philosophy of telling the media everything, especially the bad news, was employed as a way of controlling the message. It allowed journalists to write a more balanced piece, containing good and bad news, before the bad news was leaked by the rival Republicans and allowed to blow up into a scandal. The same principle can be applied to the business world. For example, when big corporations have an underperforming part of the business, they will announce potential job losses themselves, giving a detailed explanation as to why it is happening, before rumours are allowed to circulate.

  1. Fill the communication void before others fill it for you

Back when I was a business journalist I used to hear a lot of rumours about companies in trouble. Members of the public would often ring me to tell me their employer was about to make redundancies. When I approached those businesses for comment, their response was telling. If they were open and honest it usually resulted in an accurate, balanced story and the striking up of a mutually beneficial relationship. If the response was evasive it only served to make me more suspicious. With any crisis, if you are not on the front foot and giving your side of the story, others will make the story for you and chances are it won’t be flattering. These days, the rumour mill is magnified and speeded up through social media, so it’s even more vital to get the right message out early.

  1. Consider all communications channels and keep the message consistent

Customers used to take their grievances up with you via a letter or a call to your customer service team, only getting militant as a last resort. Now they take direct action on social media, highlighting bad service or faulty products for all the world to see. Customers and critics can make video reviews of your products and upload them to the internet, like they did to Apple in the wake of the iPhone 6 launch. All of this means you need to have a multi-channel strategy in place to manage potential crises before they get out of control. Consistency of the message is key to this. You can’t be saying one thing to the press if this is immediately undermined by a social media post saying something completely different. Social media will fuel a traditional media story, so you can’t afford to be indifferent to it.

  1. Make sure staff are well briefed and know what’s expected of them

You can’t prevent disgruntled employees tipping off the press about bad news, or making disparaging remarks on social media, especially if your crisis relates to job losses. What you can do is make sure staff are well briefed and kept up-to-date as the situation develops. Treat staff fairly, and with respect, and they can still be your greatest cheerleader, even in the depths of a crisis. Make sure they know to refer any media enquiries to the communications team and ask them not to speak to reporters if they are ‘door-stepped’ outside the premises. Again, you can’t physically stop them from doing this, but if they are on your side, they are less likely to be wholly negative.

Every crisis is different and can threaten the organisation in different ways. What works in one situation may not work in another. The key will always be preparedness and whether you have the right skills and resources in place to manage it and minimise risk to the business.

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