Managing a PR Crisis

One of the issues that any one of our clients may face is a technical, communications, or leadership crisis. Managing that crisis may end up in one of two directions: the downward spiral of the organization and/or its leadership; or the mitigation of the crisis and a new chapter of rebuilding and success.

When a hurricane forms, there are multiple types of crisis situations that evolve. In those cases, the hurricane is on the horizon – there is time to evaluate what types of damage it may create, and a crisis response is organized around those concerns.

When a technology based crisis erupts, its often something nobody really imagined would happen. The same is true for communications and leadership dramas. They sneak up on you.

Often, the response is totally reactionary. What do we say? Who says it? And often, leadership creates a bunker from which they intend to manage the crisis. They rely on their trusted associates, and they discuss things like, “we can’t tell them everything, so what shall we come up with?” In effect, there is an attempt to “manage” the crisis, and in the end, the result is often that the crisis manages the entity. Not good.

So what should an organization do when a technology, communications, or leadership crisis occurs?

The first thing to so is to treat the crisis as a fast moving disaster that will outpace you if you don’t act accordingly. I remember one situation we were involved in several years ago where a client’s server began spitting out duplicate email messages inviting people to purchase a product. People were getting literally hundreds of email messages from this firm, often 10 or 20 at a time.

The crisis began on a Friday afternoon. The head of marketing and lead PR manager had left for the day. They spoke briefly by phone and agreed to meet first thing on Monday morning to manage the situation. We suggested the team meet on Saturday, but were rebuffed, and told not to worry.

By Sunday night, the crisis was out of control, with hundreds of people wanting refunds, threatening legal action, and spreading the word about their anger and frustration. By Monday morning, the management team knew they had made a mistake, but it was too late. Ultimately, the company was forced to replace its managers, pay out huge sums of refund monies, and lost a huge percentage of its client base. We also resigned our engagement, as the company chose to ignore valuable outside vendor advice.

JOB ONE: When a crisis occurs, be prepared to share everything, to do it quickly, and to tell the truth.

For some reason, many organizations tend to think they can manage what people hear, and that will result in “buying time” to come up with a solution that people will accept. We know this to be rubbish. Organizations that believe in this policy deserve to fail.

Here are some thoughts related to managing a crisis:

The first step is to put the leadership (CEO, Chief, Managing Director, etc.) together with the organizations public relations team. A crisis team should be created immediately. This team should include at a minimum:

  • The CEO/Leader (you cannot succeed without the direct involvement of the boss)
  • The head of PR
  • A senior manager from the affected division
  • The organization’s legal counsel
  • A third party who can see the issue from a distance (a role I have played multiple times)

Next, determine what the objectives are – and mitigation of the crisis is at the top of the list.

Determine who does what – and whom is approved to communicate to the public. Typically, you want top level general statements from the CEO/Leader, and specifics from lower rank managers, in case adjustments need to be made. Don’t let the CEO/Leader get into the details, as any misstep will come back to haunt the organization.

The PR team should be supplemented with the best possible communicators – competent people who know how to manage the media, the individuals involved in the crisis, etc. These people may not be part of the existing PR team, but may be best suited to resolving the situation.

The crisis should be discussed openly, and in parallel, the PR team should come up with an initial PR statement, followed by a series of scheduled statements. Calls from the media should be returned immediately – never put the media off. Never tell them, “we’ll get back to you.” It isn’t necessary to spill your guts at the first phone call, but you can say, “we’re building a team to address the situation, and we’ll have additional information for you at 6PM. I know this is important and I’ll get back to you.” And, you must get back to that person at 6PM. Any later and your credibility has a hole in it.

The positioning of the crisis and response is a core component to the situation. Things to think about include:

This is where “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth” begins.

It is always best when a mistake has been made to admit it up front, and begin doing whatever is possible to re-establish credibility and confidence with internal and external audiences. This may be difficult for senior management to do, especially if the legal beagles are involved – their job is to minimize the exposure to the organization.

Telling the truth and getting the information out there may actually reduce exposure to the organization. Many public relations case studies are made of issues where the lawyers had too much say in what was done and upper management didn’t get involved from the beginning.

The first and foremost goal is protecting the integrity and reputation of the organization.

Never try to lie, deny or hide your involvement.

If you ignore the situation it will only get worse.

Don’t let the lawyers make the decisions. While they are good intentioned it may cause the crisis to escalate.

The cause of almost all crises fall into two broad categories:

  • Overt acts and acts of omission
  • Issues of competence or lack thereof in matters of public perception

In our next entry on crisis management, we’ll talk about managing a crisis and how nearly any incident can be resolved effectively..

One Comment

  1. Jason Anthony

    David –
    Great article. You have saved our firm on multiple occasions, and we so appreciate the planning and support that you and your team put into your client relationships. Thanks!

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