By Kelsey Boudin
President and Founder, Southern Tier Communications Strategies, LLC
You’ve just sat down in your office with your first cup of coffee. You peruse the morning’s headlines. Your phone buzzes. It’s a local TV reporter. You let it go to voicemail. You glance down at your phone to scroll through social media to find a negative comment about your organization.
Another. Yet another.
Holy #&*@! There’s a hashtag now?
A newspaper reporter calls. And by now, as your coffee still sits steaming, emails from board members begin to fill your email inbox. You have a full-blown PR crisis on your hands and it’s not even 9 a.m.
I’ve been on both sides — as the newshound reporter and the PR professional aiming to soften the blow. Some of the worst cases move faster than anyone can think, with information (and disinformation) flowing freely and no one sure what to say or do next.
Are you prepared? Only 62% of companies and organizations have a crisis management plan in place. Even fewer practice or update them regularly.
How to Build a PR Crisis Plan for Your Organization
Of course, crises don’t wait for your first cup of coffee or even your morning alarm. Some keep you virtually chained to your desk for days, weeks or months. These steps will help to prepare and avoid confusion.
1. Name Your Crisis Team
No single person should address the crisis alone. Many organizational problems, big and small, have blown up beyond repair because a PR staffer or even the CEO acted unilaterally with zero input from others and a spotty understanding of complex processes and systemic failures.
Most — if not all — of your senior management team should be on board. C-level executives, PR managers and department heads all bring valuable perspectives in terms of chain of command, branded messaging and internal operations. A chief financial officer may not know “the lingo” that comes so naturally to a communications professional. Likewise, your PR manager may be unfamiliar with how the department in question operates day-to-day. If possible, invite legal counsel to the team.
Just as importantly, don’t forget the little people. They’re legitimate subject-matter experts. For example, the shift worker who operates that machine or the junior accountant who manages that portfolio can offer first-hand knowledge, if only as needed.
2. Know Who Does the Talking
The spokesperson or point of contact may very well be the CEO. A chief executive likely has years of experience acting as “the public face.” They may be quite adept at media interviews, press conferences and even firing off that funny tweet to quell a nasty rumor.
But the chief executive may not be the best choice once the messaging or “company line” to address the crisis is determined. Your PR pro likely has years of media experience — perhaps even as a former talking head on TV or news reporter digging up unflattering facts. With those skillsets, they may have the strongest communication skills needed to:
- Anticipate reporter questions
- Draft press releases
- Organize press conferences
- Manage social media
- Adapt to developing narratives
Sometimes your in-house legal team or attorneys on retainer may be the only professionals qualified to speak on your organization’s behalf. Attorneys may offer very little to avoid further liability or a lot to vehemently deny allegations.
3. Identify and Game Potential Scenarios
Internal analysis and projection can develop a picture of what could go wrong and how to address it. Your PR crisis communications team should meet at least quarterly — or even monthly, if possible — to discuss potential issues both real and imagined:
- Safety records
- Pending litigation
- Personnel issues
- Organizational messaging
- Current standards and practices
- Future direction(s)
The team may identify a safety demerit from a recent inspection or a staff disciplinary matter that could, left unchecked, become a major problem. From these exercises, your team should play “war games” to practice crisis responses without consequence. During the early 1800s, the Prussian military required officers to play a board game titled “Kriegsspiel” to better understand scenarios and anticipate their adversary’s next move. War games still occur today — at a very high level — to the point that virtually any advanced military can enter combat with virtually no surprises.
That’s the point: no surprises even in crisis. Gaming scenarios frequently allows PR team members to practice their respective roles — whether addressing reporters, notifying key stakeholders or enacting a social media campaign — and work out mistakes or shortcomings. The Harvard Business Review refers to a version of this gaming process as a “premortem” examination. Instead of asking what might go wrong with your PR crisis management, assume something already went wrong and work it back.
4. Act Promptly (But Smartly)
Even the most experienced executives aim to “get out in front” or “control the narrative” of bad news. Admitting fault quickly and “spinning” a positive may seem the best course. But people see through PR speak. No one buys the narrative that “a worker is dead, but we remain committed to safety” or that “46 teachers will be laid off, but we strive for quality education.”
By all means, act promptly. The crisis goes nowhere if you don’t address it, publicly or not. Remember when the executives of BP failed to acknowledge the severity of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill? They even expressed confusion as to who was at fault, with 11 dead and an ocean ecosystem wrecked.
The context of the response is often felt most sincerely. Executing this properly sometimes requires simply acknowledging the crisis and stepping back. If feasible, allow the narrative to give some time, respect and perspective to the experience. Overshadowing grief or prematurely interrupting public outrage can work against your organization’s return to glory. (Helpful hint: Well-timed honesty and empathy work to calm an upset community and client base.)
5. Monitor the Media
You can’t address PR nightmares you can’t see. Sometimes crises emerge not of your making thanks to bad consumer reviews and even fake news by competitors. Thankfully, due diligence can save heartache.
Frankly, you’re operating blindly as a professional without consuming multiple forms and sources of local and national media daily. Failure to monitor the media (especially digital media) could harm your organization’s image dramatically. Your PR pro and crisis team may not be able to respond to each piece of negative information out there. A negative review may be best left alone (although most consumers do enjoy a response to acknowledge their concerns). A negative TV news piece or opinion column may require a strategic response.
The digital realm hosts numerous media monitoring platforms to highlight social media mentions, keyword usage and other suspicious online activity involving your brand.
6. Notify Key Stakeholders
Last but not least, your PR crisis communications strategy must involve the notification of stakeholders. Your organization may have board members, investors, employees and public advocates who would appreciate hearing bad news directly from you rather than the 6 o’clock news.
This key piece of communication must be honest. Fill in the blanks where the media and public narrative may be erroneous, missing key details or misconstruing reality. Just as importantly, acknowledge where they’re right. Assure stakeholders that steps are being taken to correct the problem, if possible. It may hurt to admit fault, but don’t leave stakeholders in the dark if there will be financial, legal and human resources consequences.
A chief executive may wish to assign herself the role of stakeholder outreach or delegate the task to someone less busy.