A Primer for Crisis PR

It’s the kind of press release headline a PR person dreads writing: “Company XYZ Lives Up to Lowered Expectations.” It’s the PR version of the backhanded compliment. These days, young and fresh-faced PR operatives are replacing meaningless words and phrases such as “end-to-end solutions” and “enabling technology” with the painful “layoffs” and “Chapter 11.”

The Institute for Crisis Management defines a crisis as “a significant business disruption which stimulates extensive news media coverage. The resulting public scrutiny will affect the organization’s normal operations and also could have a political, legal, financial and governmental impact on its business.”

Sometimes, a relatively small issue can escalate into a huge one if the media sinks its teeth into it. A few bits of bad press and suddenly the business press is interested, and then Wall Street analysts/pundits are telling Jim Lehrer of PBS’s NewsHour that your company’s stocks are “sell, sell, sell.” And with the Internet, this can happen within 48 hours.

As we’ve said before, a communications crisis is what separates the true PR professionals from the wannabes and also-rans (i.e., the ones who submitted 8 x 10 glossies with their risumis). If your company is facing some difficult times and you’re concerned about press coverage, it’s time to call in the veteran communicators.

Fellow ClickZ columnist Zhenya Gene Senyak describes the difference between publicity and public relations in his article “When PR Comes Skidding Round the Curve.”

Here are some quick tips to consider when handling or preparing for a crisis.

Be Swift, Direct, and Honest

It may sound strange, but the best-case scenario is when the company itself reports the bad news. This is proactive and prevents your company from being put in a weakened, defensive position. If the crisis is foreseen — impending bad financial news, for example — make sure the public relations staff is at the senior management table to discuss overall strategy.

A caveat: This is a strategic move that must be carefully reviewed and implemented. Not all bad news is worthy of proactive announcements to the public. In many cases, an issue can be effectively handled internally, with no impact on the business and no need for announcement and subsequent media hoopla. Make sure you know the difference between general, garden-variety bad news and a true corporate crisis.

If the crisis is not foreseen and you’re forced into a reactive position, then react quickly. No issue skirting allowed. If you visit drkoop.com’s press relations site, you won’t find any references to news media stories about last year’s financial troubles. This head-in-the-sand approach is definitely not recommended.

Consider Your Internal Audience First

If your company is looking at its quarterly financials and they’re not looking pretty, you owe it to your employees to hear it from you first. You don’t want them visiting online news sites — and their evil twin, rumor-mill sites — and learning the company is in trouble.

Tell them first. Tell them how you’re going to deal with the bad news, and communicate regularly with them throughout the crisis. Yeah, maybe they’ll leak it. But maybe they won’t.

Don’t Let the Legal Department Make the Decisions

All the lawyers in the audience will write us hate mail for this one. But too bad. A lawyer’s favorite phrase after “billable hours” is “no comment” — the kiss of death in PR-speak.

Though compromise and peace can exist between the legal and communications teams, remember that their objectives are naturally at odds. Ultimately, everyone wants to protect the company. But how they try to get there are completely diverging paths.

Look no further than the case studies to show you which one is the best approach.

Don’t Pitch Fluff, Plan!

The “Look! There goes Elvis!” strategy of trying to distract the media with some other, unrelated, lame story will make you look like an idiot. Don’t do it.

We know that planning is not part of the dot-com cultural mystique. Maybe flying by the seat of your pants in this crazy world is cute to some people, but in a time of crisis you want to know exactly where everyone is and what you’re supposed to do. Grown-up companies (some of them) educate their senior managers about the crisis plan, then insist that each executive keep a copy of the plan at home and at the office.

Take a look at Northern Illinois University’s great resource on how to develop a crisis communications plan.

It doesn’t look like there’s any short-term end to the flurry of bad news coming from companies — online and offline. And, as in other things in life, there’s no better defense than a good communication strategy.

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