What to Do in a PR Crisis

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What to Do in a PR Crisis

By Samantha Brooks on 19 July, 2016

Nothing shakes up another boring work day quite like a reputation-destroying PR crisis. Whether your company is accused of racial discrimination, or builds cars that tend to get their accelerators jammed, a good PR nightmare certainly ensures for a lively day at the office.

No matter how careful and calculated your organisation may be, there’s no way of completely eliminating the possibility of a PR disaster. So, like any other business risk, the possibility should be planned and prepared for in the most comprehensive way possible. In the event that your organisation needs to weather a PR storm, you should be ready.

So, what’s a good PR crisis strategy made of? How on earth do you prepare for something that you as yet know nothing about? There are ways and means, young grasshopper.

In the interests of realism, let’s run an experiment. Close your eyes and imagine a PR crisis that could potentially happen at your organisation, however remote the chances may be. A rogue employee has said something truly offensive. A product has self-destructed while being used as per the instructions. A frustrated customer has made some well-articulated comparisons between your organisation and the Nazi regime on Today Tonight.

Got it? Excellent. Keep that situation in your mind’s eye.

Okay. Let’s get crisising.

Foresight, Prevention, Provision

We can break down crisis preparation into three handy parts; foresight, prevention and provision.Foresight is all about having a deep knowledge of your organisation that allows you to spot potential crises before they happen, and identify their potential consequences. Prevention involves acting on these pre-empted crises in an effort to avoid them. Provision is making a plan for those crises that dohappen.

If you’ve got the resources, assigning this task to a crisis management team is ideal. If PR crisis preparation is left to a team who will forever leave it at the bottom of their ‘to-do’ list – which can be tempting when you’re dealing in these sorts of ifs, buts and maybes – you’ll most likely be unprepared when something does happen.

When Something Does Happen

This crisis team needs to not only prepare for the unpleasant occasion, but also kick into top gear when a PR crisis actually presents itself. The crisis team will be calculated and methodical, always thinking before they act.

They will first define the problem, looking closely at the individuals or groups that have been affected, and deciding how the organisation should best react. As much information as possible should be collected on those affected; the more information you have, the better understanding you’ll have of the appropriate response.

There should be members of the team devoted to forward thinking, playing out how the public will react to the organisation’s moves, and how the situation as a whole might evolve.

The team needs a spokesperson; one that has appropriate authority to address the public on the crisis at hand. You may need to go quite high up the organisation’s hierarchy to find the suitable face. If the PR crisis is a major one, there may be no choice but to get the CEO or president of your organisation to convey what needs to be conveyed. If the crisis affects only one branch of an organisation, the head of that branch may be more appropriate. The choice of spokesperson will depend on a variety of factors, including whether the crisis is of a technical or personal nature, where it is, how long it will last, and who it has affected.

It also needs to be decided how this message will best be delivered. The same channels that are used for day-to-day communication will often suffice, but if you need to throw down some real talk in a slightly speedier manner, our good friend social media may present itself as the best choice. Just minimise the use of emoticons and ‘LOL’s.

The media pack may also want their information dog bowl filled with delicious chunks of news, so press conferences and emails should be offered. It’s important to quench their thirst, as a quiet organisation is ripe for speculation and rumour. Deliver your side of the story to deny the editorials the chance to make it up.

Your website should be used as communication home base, and the PR crisis should be addressed in a very clear way on the homepage. If those affected can’t see any reference to the issue when they log onto your website, they’ll perceive that as your organisation not taking the matter seriously. Your website’s intranet may also offer an effective way to keep your employees in the loop.

The aim of the communication game is for your organisation to offer itself up as the most trusted source on all matters regarding the crisis. You need to take the initiative, acting positively and updating the public and media consistently. By becoming the crisis’ go-to source, you’ll have far greater control over how the events are perceived.

But what should be kept in mind when it comes to the specifics of crisis communication?

Crisis Communication

Dealing with a PR nightmare is all about communication. We’re talking both the messages being received by your organisation, and the messages your organisation delivers to the outside world. Some key PR crisis communication rules include:

Address people’s perceptions of what happened, not what actually happened. This can be a hugely difficult ask, as the public’s perception is almost always an over-the-top and embellished version of the truth. But unfortunately, as the PR ‘crisee’, you start on the back foot. To argue about semantics (that’s at least how the public will see it) will only serve to further damage your reputation. The gravity of your PR crisis is tethered to the public’s perception of it. You need to remember that.

In order to address perceptions, you need to fully comprehend exactly what those perceptions are. Your organisation need to listen carefully to the people who are complaining, and tune in emotionally. Seeing things from the complainant’s point of view will help no end in formulating a strategy to fix the problem. Remember that anger can hinder communication, and the complainant won’t be interested in what you have to say until they’ve first had a chance to fully air their grievances.

In these heated and chaotic situations, it is vital that your organisation keeps a cool head. Remember that public opinion and law are two very different things, and a conflict between the two may arise during a PR crisis. You should have both a legal team and communication experts on hand to double check that any response to the problem will both be received well by the public and won’t put you in a legal hole.

Remain truthful and accountable. In a PR crisis, honesty and accountability will equal credibility. So, whatever the issue, you need to recognise it, admit to any wrongdoing, as well as committing to fix the problem and repairing any collateral damage. Inspiration can be taken from how US airline JetBlue handled the grounding of 1000 flights in a week due to widespread ice storms on the east coast of America. In their letter of apology to their customers, they didn’t once mention the weather. They bore full responsibility, even when it was obvious that they didn’t need to.

After the Dust Has Settled

You’ve done it. Your organisation has navigated the choppy crisis seas, and seems to have steered itself into calmer waters without fatal damage. What next?

The post-crisis period is one that is ripe for learning. Each crisis offers unique insight in how best to handle certain situations, and these lessons can prove invaluable in crises to come. A comprehensive assessment of your organisation’s performance should be carried out, and successful strategies should be noted and put to one side. Less successful strategies should be dissected and learnt from.

A PR crisis can be a huge test of an organisation’s relationship with the general public. Like any relationship, this one will only survive trying times if it’s strong. Being approachable, open and dedicated to making things right will give the alliance between your organisation and the public the best chance of surviving. Perception is key. If they perceive that you aren’t doing all that you can to fix the problem, you’re in strife.

As well articulated as those Today Tonight Nazi comparisons may have been, they aren’t insurmountable. Being prepared is the key to surviving your PR crisis D-Day.

Fuse Agency provide exceptional public relations, communications and crisis management services. Give us a call on 07 3198 4890 or email info@fuseagency.com.au to learn more.

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