How to Respond to a PR Communications Crisis
Leaders of the world:
You can not keep a secret
You're going to look me in the eye and tell me I'm wrong.
But I'm not wrong.
You're going to try to convince me you have absolute control over your organization.
You don't have control.
I get it.
You come from a generation of leaders that were from the 80s when maybe -- sometimes -- information could be successfully withheld from the public's eye. You may have even withheld information from your most innermost circle. You may even be hiding information from your wife.
Good for you.
But you can't hide information from me.
Because information is everywhere, instantaneously shared around the world via networks you can't control. You don't know what information is out there, and you don't know who has it.
The truth always gets out.
When faced with a PR Communications crisis there is a standard 4-step response:
1. Assess the situation
3. Correct the problem
4. Make restitution
Like the five stages of grief all four steps must happen -- sometimes concurrently.
1. Assess the Situation
First, does a crisis really exist? Yes, I know you found a blog article that contains lies and defamation. But is it hurting sales? Does anyone read the blog?
When you respond to a situation you can make a situation worse. Case in point -- the business who has lawyer send a "cease and desist" order to a blogger that has just published photos of safety violations for a popular tourist attraction. The blogger laughs and shares the letter with his readership. Folks comment. Traffic goes up. Within 24 hours, any search for the attraction turns up the defamatory accusations. Sales suffer. On the Internet, the more attention you bring to something, the more popular and viral it becomes.
If your phone's not ringing with angry customers, or if sales remain strong, you might not be in a crisis. Consider a muted response.
On the other hand, if you do have a crisis on your hands, then the first thing you need to do is communicate. Still don't know the facts? Then explain what you're doing to get the facts and tell reporters when you're next update will be (preferably within four hours, depending on the nature of the emergency).
Because the public abhors a vacuum, and if you don't provide your side of the story, someone else will. That takes control of the message (and the situation) out of your hands and into someone elses. You want to be the primary source of information. Your job is to build trust and credibility. In the first moments of a crisis, the only thing you have is open and transparent communication.
"But I've done nothing wrong." Oh, yes you have. Otherwise, you wouldn't have a crisis on your hands. "But it was our vendor's fault." Doesn't matter. Apologize. The sooner you apologize, the sooner you can get on with the business of repairing your reputation.
So many times I've seen CEOs drag out this part of the process. It's painful to watch. Attorneys get involved and tell their client to just keep quiet. That's disasterous for your reputation. I've seen leaders in denial, honestly believing what they did was right. Please, do yourself a favor and just apologize -- as honestly and authentically as you can. Come to terms with the fact that you are in a crisis.
Remember: the responsibility for your reputation is yours alone. Your lawyers don't give a hoot about your reputation, that's not what they get paid for. If you want to go back to business as normal one day, you're going to need your reputation intact. Listen to all the advice you'll get and make an informed decision. Give the advice you get from your attorney equal weight to the advice you'll get from your PR communications counsel.
3. Correct the problem
Do I really have to say this? You'd be amazed at the number of leaders who honestly believe they can go back to doing business as usual. Don't do that. Either legislators will come after you or activist groups will get together or the trust you break with customers will never return. "We've broken no laws." Just because it's legal does not make it right. And trust me, it's only a matter of time before what you're doing will become illegal -- eventually.
Is what you're doing the right thing to do? Is it fair to all concerned? Do you have your employees best interests in mind? Do you have the community's best interests in mind? Are you being honest about your practices and behaviors?
Don't make assumptions about "what the community wants." Ask them. And when they tell you what they want, listen and respond appropriately. Dont ignore the precious feedback you've been given. You might not get it twice.
4. Make restitution
This is another area where I see leaders try to delay the inevitable. There has never been a real crisis that didn't end in some form of apology payment or educational program. Oh sure, sometimes you'll see an "educational fund" be established, or a healthy donation to a worthy charity that both sides support, but make no mistake about it -- payments will occur.
Foolish and stubborn leaders might insist they can overcome serious opposition without making some sort of payment. But they're wrong. Distrust and negativity will persist until this happens. It can't be avoided. Penalties must occur. Sure, the money might go to support a mutually beneficial charity, educational campaign, or to victim families, but true healing can only occur once the community feels justice has been done.
Prepare for Your Crisis Now
Begin with identifying your crisis communications team and spokespersons. Your best spokesperson may not be the CEO. Qualified spokespeople must be able to think clearly under enormous amounts of stress, sometimes for several days (or weeks) at a time.
In a national crisis event, your spokesperson might go several days without sleep. Call a full-service marketing firm to your aid at the moment you learn of your crisis and get the resources and support you'll need during the first 12 hours.
If you haven't prepared your notification systems and processes, do that now. Identify how information is going to be gathered and shared, by whom and when. Often the CEO and VP of Marketing will be connected at the hip during the first few hours of a crisis. Timliness is key. Cancel the weekend plans! Nothing is more important than your repuation.
Did you just think of a phone tree? Think instant messaging instead. Crisis consultant Johnathan Bernstein recommends technology that can automatically contact all key stakesholders in a time of crisis, as well as other important crisis functions.
Anticipate your crisis. Every business is at risk for some type of employee violence, crime or accident that results in loss of life. But what types of crisis situations are unique to your location or industry? Product safety? Contamination? Customer data? Industrial chemicals?
Set time aside now for in-depth crisis planning, and include cybersecurity in your plans. Make this crisis planning off-limits to all interuptions so you can complete your crisis plan in a timely manner. It may feel odd to block off time and talk about events that might not occur. But whether it's an earthquake, bomb threat or unforseen accident, there will be a crisis that affects your company. And when that happens, you don't want to be standing in your office wondering what to do. You'll be at work resolving the issue.