How to deal with a PR crisis

Have you prepared for the eventuality of a PR crisis? Consider the implications and find out how to take action.

It would be really useful if you read this before a PR crisis occurs rather than during, because the number one piece of advice here is: prepare! If your firm operates in an obscure B2B niche, you may think that the chances of a disaster occurring are remote. So if you don’t have the time or inclination to prepare for a crisis, at least forward this article to a trusted deputy and make it their task to draw up a plan.

What sort of events can spark a PR crisis?

  • You, your firm or an employee is involved in a scandal involving money, politics or a celebrity.
  • Your firm’s products, services or operations cause harm to a customer, member of the public or the environment.
  • Your firm is accused of breaking ethical codes. For example, your services are purchased by a government that uses lethal force to suppress peaceful demonstration. Another example: an employee commits suicide after a period of prolonged stress at work.
  • Your firm’s product, service or operation is declared illegal.
  • You or a senior manager are accused of a crime.

The point of thinking about how to respond to these is not to cause yourself undue stress, but to ensure you are prepared for the worst. Bad press can mean loss of valued customers.

People, process, practice

You have fire marshals, procedures to follow in the event of a fire, and fire drills. Similarly your preparation for a PR crisis should involve:

  • People – a key team
  • Process – the actions each team member knows to take in the event of a crisis.
  • Practice – crisis simulation so you know if the plan works and the people understand their roles.

One of the first actions is to brief your PR agency, assuming you’ve appointed one (see ‘Related Articles’). The advantages of having a good PR agency on your side in a crisis are manifold. Like the cabin crew onboard an airliner, PR staff should be trained to respond to an emergency. PRs can handle initial calls from the media (although you should never hide behind them) and can advise you on messaging and how to approach interviews that involve hard questions.

If you’re in an area of business with a high probability of PR crisis or you think it could cause serious damage to the company, seek media training and practice annually. Think of it as insurance: it’s a risk-based calculation.

Don’t delay

A PR crisis is like an infection: leaving it unattended results in acute pain. The quicker you deal with it, the quicker you heal. Respond immediately to a crisis in the same media in which it is communicated. For example, if complaints about your company are trending on Twitter, respond on Twitter. Then cover all the other media channels in which you are active. Put a statement on your website, on your corporate Facebook page, issue a press release, etc. Be honest about mistakes. Show what actions have been taken to rectify the problem and to prevent it happening again.

If the crisis is big enough the mainstream media may get wind of it, in which case consider offering the complete story to a favoured journalist as an exclusive. It is better to experience one quick pain than suffer the prolonged torture of the details leaking out over months. You will get a more favourable hearing if you tell a journalist yourself rather than them finding out through ‘sources’. Again, a good PR agency will know who to offer the exclusive to and how to shape the story.

In deep water

If your plan goes awry and you are door-stepped by a journalist, never say:

  • “This isn’t a story” – that’s the journalist’s job to judge, just answer the questions in the way you prepared. You did prepare, right?
  • “I shouldn’t tell you this, but…” A journalist’s job is to publish what they know. If you don’t want it published, don’t tell them.
  • If you get bad press coverage, don’t berate the journalist afterwards unless the story contains factual errors (as opposed to just omitting your side of the story). There is no ‘Law’ to right of reply, except in specific circumstances involving statements made in court.
  • And if – God forbid – people have lost their lives and/or livelihoods as a result of your firm’s actions, never say, “I want my life back”, a la Tony Hayward of BP.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK