6 Tips for Handling a PR Crisis
When I was in college, I lived with my sister in an off-campus apartment with reserved parking for each unit. While there were plenty of visitor spaces, our neighbor’s boyfriend always parked in our spots despite us asking him to move at least once per week. One time while I was out of town for a student organization convention, my sister called and said she was towing the truck. The guy absolutely flipped out. He stalked the backdoor and scared my sister, so she called me and I talked to him. It was a total crisis for us at the time. Let’s just say that after our talk I earned the name firecracker, and he never even looked at our spot again.
It wasn’t my most level-headed moment, but it came down to a communication issue. We asked him weekly to move, as it was difficult for us to park in our own lot on weekends. But he parked there over and over regardless. And it backfired. Thankfully, I’m only part-firecracker these days, which has been helpful when I encounter real crises with my clients. PR crises can vary in their nature, but there are a handful of tips I can offer to make sure they don’t overwhelm – or worse, ruin your organization.
- Keep your communications staff and/or agency involved.
I’m a big proponent of making sure the communications staff has a seat at the executive table. Even something that seems uninteresting could have implications with the media, so it’s better for them to be involved from the beginning.
If your organization doesn’t have an internal PR person, hire an agency you can trust. They work with media all day every day, and their insight can be invaluable to your organization. As a third party, they also bring an element of reason to help overcome any emotion present among your own board or administration.
- Be prepared.
As a business owner or executive, you are likely very busy with the day-to-day of running your company. However, it’s worth your time to make crisis planning a priority. At minimum, consider:
- A succession plan – Who will take over if your president, CEO or another high-ranking executive leaves or is fired? Having this in place before something like this happens can prevent scrambling later.
- A media policy for employees – Are they allowed to speak to media without prior authorization? How should they handle the situation if a reporter shows up? Who is the authorized spokesperson? This may also include social media and what they can and cannot say about their company online.
- Legal counsel – Is your organization large enough to have an internal legal department? If not, make sure you have an attorney or law firm you can trust should a situation arise.
- PR support – Do you have a PR agency on retainer? If not, consider it before something bad happens. That way, there’s not a learning curve during a crisis. This also allows your PR team to build the media’s trust regarding your company in advance of a crisis.
- Don’t lie.
And while we’re at it, don’t say no comment! Saying “no comment” in an interview allows reporters, readers, viewers or anyone else to fill in the blanks on their own. Their speculation may be worse than if you’d given them any sort of answer. There’s always something you can say other than no comment. And while it may be tempting to say something isn’t true to avoid further investigation, know that a lie will always be exposed. It is always worse if it appears your organization has deliberately misled media or members of the public.
- Cooperate now, and it will pay off later.
We all want the media’s support when we’re pitching stories that make our clients look good, but think long-term. If you don’t help them when it’s inconvenient for you, why should they pay attention later? Even if you legally can’t say anything, giving them something and making every effort to cooperate is better than giving them nothing.
And while we’re considering this, make sure to act quickly. If you aren’t on top of things, the story will happen without you. You may not get a chance to tell your side of the story later.
- Don’t forget your internal stakeholders.
Your employees, board members, volunteers, vendors, partners or other stakeholders should know something serious is going on. They should always hear it from you first, not from the news media. Make sure you’ve prepared internal and external communications plans to make sure everyone is covered.
- Consider a “cooling” period.
Depending on the scope of your crisis and the size of your organization, you may need to consider taking a break from pitching other stories for a little while. If nothing came of a reporter’s probe, you may be back in the game within a few weeks. However, if a series of damaging stories run, you may consider staying out longer. Consider this on a case-by-case basis.
Keep in mind that a crisis is relative. It takes a lot more for a situation to become a crisis for the federal government than it does for a local small business. However, being prepared at any level will only help later.