"In PR, it’s not if, but when it happens to you."
A crisis strategy is a requirement in today's turbulent news cycle
Crisis communications is a must for any client working with a public relations agency, as well as individual agencies themselves. In an era of mass shootings in schools and workplaces, sexual abuse and harassment scandals, and racist behavior uncovered at even the most policed of mega-brands, scenario and response planning is essential for any senior management or communications team.
I’m always surprised at the size of some of our clients who tell me they’ve never had a crisis communications plan — until we developed one for them. Many work very hard to build and articulate a strong brand, but then forget about planning for reputation management as part of a crisis communications plan. A well-defined plan is worth developing now to ensure your organization (or your client’s organization) is aligned and prepared when crisis strikes. To help you get started, I’ve identified a few key elements you won’t want to overlook.
For starters, identify the core team who will be responsible for your organization’s response. This team should be small, nimble, and have a high degree of trust in one other as well as among the larger community of stakeholders (think board members, investors, major B2B customers, local elected officials, community or market influencers). Ideally, one member is regularly a spokesperson for the company and will have existing relationships with members of the media.
Step two is figuring out what to say. Until you have all the facts, less is more. I’m not suggesting you stonewall the press, but you want to be sure you are providing accurate information to the media. After all, your reputation (and your company’s) is on the line. When a reporter calls, it’s 100% okay to ask about their deadline and scope of the article. Tell them you’ll call back as soon as you have all the answers to all of their questions, and then follow through on that promise.
Next is remembering your values. Not just corporate-speak values, but really, what you stand for as an individual human being, as an executive team, and hopefully, as a company. I specialize in PR strategy for purpose-driven brands, so most of my clients are pretty clear on why they exist in the world and are driven by social and financial impact. If this doesn’t sound like your company, I suggest you do this hard values work now instead of waiting until a crisis strikes. And if (high five!) your values are clear and already guiding your behavior and policies, internally and externally, your response in a time of crisis will be of higher quality, and less stressful. Also, if you lead with your values, it’s less likely you’ll feel like you need to shower after you make that first statement to the press.
Lastly, think about the timing of your statements. Like a chess game, figure out how the crisis is likely to unfold, power-map the key players, and don’t forget about how it may impact your employees and other internal stakeholders (note to nonprofits: never neglect your donors when it comes to crisis communications). Depending on the nature of your business and its partners, consider how local government officials will react. Do you really want them to read about this crisis in the news, or would it be smarter to give a quick “heads up” to your mayor and city council or even Congressional delegation or key members of their staff?
Include the following in your crisis statement, but don't be rigid about it
Any statement about the crisis should contain the following elements:
- What caused the crisis and what happened
- Communication of compassion for any victims involved and respecting any confidentiality needs stemming from personnel issues
- A timetable for future plans to remedy the situation.
A lot of the tactics common in crisis communications are not one-size-fits all. For example, an op-ed may bring more unwanted attention to a scandal, whereas cultivating a relationship with a reporter from a competing newspaper or TV station and providing them with a new angle or better access may yield a better story that’s seen by more people.
Caitlin Copple Masingill, M.A., is the PR Director at Oliver Russell. She’s a former local elected official and has worked as a journalist in Idaho and Montana.
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