Q&A: How to Handle a PR Crisis

Liz Burke, Vice President of PR/Account Services, Didit

Q: What should be your first move after your company has experienced a PR crisis?

A: The ideal scenario is having a crisis plan in place before a crisis occurs, even if the possibility of a crisis is highly unlikely. The plan should include, but not be limited to: identifying the main types of crises that could occur; establishing guidelines for communication, logistics and behavior in a crisis by company executives and staff at all levels; designation of a chain of command for approvals and decision-making; advanced decision on primary company spokesperson and a back-up spokesperson.

If there is no crisis plan in place when one hits, I recommend that the first move be gathering and vetting all of the information about the crisis and assembling key individuals to form a response team. This should be done before any communication or information is distributed to company employees or external parties.

Q: Should you appoint a response team? Why or why not? Who should be on a response team?

A: Yes. A response team is a vital piece of a crisis plan because a crisis management requires collaboration between executives, managers, and other key staffers. Also, a response team allows for more effective and seamless communication, which should lessen the chance of a minor issue becoming bigger. The response team process should include, but not be limited to: appointing an internal crisis team that would be charged with all key decision-making in a crisis; designating a chain of command for approvals and decision-making; assigning specific roles and responsibilities for each member of the crisis team. In most cases, the crisis team should include company owners, senior executives, managers, and attorney and public relations representative and/or communications staff members. Never try to handle a crisis alone.

Q: What websites and places should you monitor during a PR crisis?

A: News outlets, all social media channels, online review sites and chat forums

Q: When, how and who should create a message in response to the crisis?

A: Ideally, messages and reactive statements should be created ahead of time, according to different types of crises that could occur. It should consist of the development of templates for news releases and statements that can be quickly tailored for any crisis situation. The purpose of this step in a crisis plan is to facilitate rapid communication to ensure that a focused message is shared among internal and external parties. The messaging should be clear and succinct, and not create any level of confusion. Avoid any usage of complicated and technical terms. For some crises, there will be a need to incorporate sympathy into the statement, providing a message of concern for what has happened. In other cases, there will be a need to include a mention of public safety being a top priority. Also, it is critical to double check all facts before releasing any press materials.

Q: When/how should you send out a press release? And to who?

A: Once all of the information related to a crisis is vetted and the facts are double checked, in most cases, it is best to issue a press “statement” rather than a full press release, particularly in the first phase of a crisis. The purpose is inform members of the press in a timely manner about the basic incident facts and express that the company or entity is actively addressing the situation. In this case, less is more.

Q: What should you do once the crisis is “handled?”

A: Once the crisis is handled, it is critical to hold a follow-up meeting with your response team to recap the chain of events and identify weaknesses and/or missteps, and things that could have been done differently. Once these observations are shared and chronicled, update your crisis plan to reflect these changes. Another recommendation is to assign key members of the response team to review the crisis plan and its elements several times throughout the year and update it, as needed. The more prepared, the better equipped a company is to handle a crisis with as few issues as possible.

Q: What’s the worst things to do during a crisis?

A: Avoid the following:

•Answering an inbound press call. Let the reporter leave a voicemail first, in order to determine what he/she is looking for; then you can collect your thoughts, review the facts and plan your messaging for a press statement or interview with the press.
•Saying “no comment” to the press, which in most cases, gives the impression that you are hiding something. The press will continue digging to create a story and you do not want the story to be one-sided.
•Saying “off the record.”
•Using complicated or technical jargon.
•Expressing anger through words or expressions.
•Being deceptive or misleading audiences.
•Hiding from the media’s emails and phone calls; issuing a concise statement will provide them with a critical piece of their story, and allow you to focus on the crisis at hand.

About the Author: Liz Burke is a trusted communications professional with experience across a host of industries, including travel, law, health care, pharmaceutical, non-profit, retail, automotive and public safety. She is responsible for effectively communicating her clients’ brand, vision and news to internal and external parties to generate positive results as well as nurture leads. Liz’s specialties include traditional and digital public relations and marketing, content marketing, media training, strategic communications, writing, storytelling, blogging, crisis management, account management and client services.

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