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Five principles for managing a PR disaster

When your reputation’s under attack, be brave, be honest and be open

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at paddleink@gmail.com, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at CalgaryBusinessWriter.com.

Feb 1, 2014

by Marzena Czarnecka

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Illustration Pete Ryan

Ka-boom! It happened. It doesn’t really matter what – call it your worst nightmare. An explosion. A spill, derailment, death on site.

Your CFO caught engaging in creative accounting; your VP sales caught in flagrante delicto with … well, we don’t need to go into details. Starting point of today’s exercise: imagine your worst public relations nightmare. It’s here. What are you going to do?

The answer should be easy. Because step one in being prepared for a public relations disaster is to make like a Boy Scout. That’s right, be prepared. Alas, most enterprises get serious about PR disasters plans after mucking things up royally the first time (first three times?) – just look at any week’s headline. For that to not be you, the first thing you need to accept is this: it could be you. “Any company can have a crisis that results in reputational malfeasance,” says Lisa Walker, a general manager with Hill + Knowlton Strategies. It doesn’t matter what you do: the universe is unpredictable and sometimes, things go horribly wrong.

But here’s the first bit of good news. You don’t have to imagine every worst-case scenario. “The same principles apply to any emergency,” stresses Walker.

“It’s a classic mistake: companies get too focused on dealing with the media, and they forget about talking with their employees, customers, and communities.” – Lisa Walker, general manager with Hill + Knowlton Strategies

Principle one: Step up and step up fast.

Like, now. There was a time when you could get away – for a while – with taking your time to prepare a response – or even, maybe, doing the ostrich thing and keeping communication with the external world to a minimum. In the brave new world of Twitter and information sharing at the speed of the Internet, you can’t do that. You don’t know the details? Fine. You still need to get a statement out ASAP. “We’ve just received this information, we’re on top of it, we’re doing X, Y, and Z, and we will have more information for you at 9:45.” And then follow up and deliver the information. You want to be the nexus of the information flow, the source for updates. You. Not some Joe Doe with an axe to grinder and a Twitter account. You. That means when you’ve prepped your Crisis Plan, identified a crisis spokesperson, a crisis email address, a crisis phone line, maybe have a dedicated crisis website or Twitter handle, you’re ready to go. You’re on top it, you’re responsive, you’re accessible. Because, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth’s put on its pants – and that was back in the day. If you’re not telling the truth, you’re leaving the door open for someone else to spin lies.

Principle two: Acknowledge you mucked up.

So here’s the thing. I know you, personally, did not blow anything up, steal money from the shareholders or engage in questionable behaviour with … well, let’s skip the details. And you’re a good person. And you think you run a good company. And you think apologizing for this horrific thing that happened … well. You just don’t want to. It’s tough.

Suck it up, princess, and be an adult. “We immediately have to own up to what has happened, accept responsibility for what has happened, and just as we do in our personal lives, we have to apologize,” says Laurie Stretch, a general manager with Edelman Calgary. Now, there are plenty of valid reasons why you’re loathe to apologize: you might have a lawyer freaking out over your left ear telling you an apology brings you that much closer to legal liability. “And you should listen keenly to your lawyers,” says Stretch, “and then you should listen keenly to your communicators, because there are ways of apologizing that don’t increase your liability.” Let’s face it, if you screwed up badly enough, you’re going to get sued no matter what. And there is an awful lot of research that shows a good apology–followed by solid reparations – will ultimately reduce your legal costs and damages.

Lawyers used to working with clients in crisis, by the way, won’t keep you from apologizing. “There’s been a generational change, and lawyers now tend to be our friends in crisis,” says Walker. So swallow that ego, and practice saying, “I’m sorry,” in the mirror a few times. Like you mean it. That was terrible. Practice some more.

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Principle three: Communicate what you’re doing to address the crisis.

Do not talk about your stellar safety record to date. Do not talk about how important integrity and reputation and safety and trust and motherhood and apple pie are to your company. You’ve temporarily lost the right to do that. “You’ve lost trust and credibility,” says Stretch. Accept that. “As you respond, you need to be completely focused on what you are doing to fix the situation. You need to show a concrete plan of action of what you are doing.” And try not to get on the defensive. You mucked up. Some level of bad media is inevitable. Anger, outrage from shareholders, stakeholders, communities – it’s going to come. “You need to understand the external point of view, why they feel what they feel and why they are sceptical of your response,” Stretch explains.

Principle four: The media are not your primary stakeholder.

Communicating with your customers, employees, suppliers, regulators, politicians, and directly with the communities in which you operate should take precedence. “It’s a classic mistake: companies get too focused on dealing with the media, and they forget about talking with their employees, customers, and communities,” says Walker. “But in a few days, the media will move on to another story, and your employees and customers will be there long after the headlines quiet down.” Or at least – you want them to be there long after the headlines quiet down. Are you talking to them? They should not be getting their information from the media – or Joe Doe’s Twitter feed. They should be getting it from you. First. The mayor? He should be getting a call from you before the journalist calls him for a comment. The regulator? You should be on top of any disclosure and have them involved before they see a single headline or press release. Your employees? They’re impacted. They need to know what happened. The media? You need to talk to them, absolutely. But not at the expense of direct communication with your stakeholders.

Principle five: Don’t meddle.

This one’s going to kill you, sorry, but it’s key. You’ve invested in designing a crisis management plan. Maybe you’ve set up an incident command system, identified an incident commander and a crisis spokesperson. They’ve rehearsed, drilled and practiced. They’re moving through the steps, quickly, efficiently … and all of a sudden, you call the incident commander out of the war room for a personal update. Or you start to wordsmith the press release: “Deeply regret” or “truly regret”? Answer: a) it doesn’t matter b) it’s not your job. You have a role to fill in the crisis – and it’s not to micromanage the process. OK? Odds are, your to-do list includes placing calls to key shareholders or updating the premier – not inserting semi- colons into your crisis spokesperson’s update notes.

And that is pretty much it. Simple, right? Ok, what you need to do next is practice. Because, as Stretch notes, “when things do go wrong, crisis response principles are amazing easy in theory and amazingly difficult in practice.” If you do a crisis exercise often enough and ardently enough – really drilling down to the worst-possible case scenarios – you might find the actual crisis is easier than the exercise.

Hey, it could happen.

Our experts recommend:

For a crash course in crisis management, read Dr. Peter Sandman’s Crisis Communication articles.

One Response to Five principles for managing a PR disaster

  1. Pingback: Five principles for managing a PR disaster | Hill+Knowlton Canada

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