By Arthur Solomon
The Merlins of our business – the self-described PR crisis counselors – have for decades collected large fees by assuring crisis-afflicted clients that they have the magic to lessen negative media coverage. If you believe that, just do a search of the press coverage of the National Football League’s concussion issues, the BP and Exxon Valdez oil spills, GM’s and Volkswagen’s auto problems, just to name a few, and the current ones of Wells Fargo, Equifax, the Trump White House, Hillary Clinton, and the growing list of media and show biz personalities accused of sexual harassment.
Studying the negative effects of their crises could provide enough material for a year’s master course in how not to handle a crisis, followed by a semester on the ineffectiveness of crisis specialist’s recommendations
During my PR career, I’ve advised corporate leaders and foreign government officials in crisis situations with pretty good success, and believe me, I’m no Merlin. But what I do have, as a former reporter and editor, is first-hand knowledge of how to deal with the media and street smarts, also known as common sense. I believe those are the two most important traits that PR crisis people should have. All the remaining aspects of PR crisis counseling are nothing but boiler plate rules that anyone can learn from text books.
I can only surmise how much money Equifax, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo have wasted on their PR crisis efforts in attempting to reduce negative press coverage. It’s wasted money because anyone who is truthful about the efficacy of crisis PR outreach knows that only the media will decide when it’s time to stop writing about a company in crisis. All the apologies, press releases and op-eds are nothing but eyewash, as we used to say in the Army.
Of course, Equifax and Wells Fargo broke two cardinal rules of PR crisis communication: Get the bad news out fast and tell what steps will be taken to fix the problem. Equifax also broke another rule: Be nice to the people affected by your data breach (or any other type of consumer issue).
During my long career in PR, I’ve seen too many account people ignore the physicians’ credo of “first do no harm,” which also should apply to PR practices.
I’ve always tried to do that by following my own three rules.
First: Crisis Prevention program planning. It means researching a client’s history to make certain that included program elements do not invite reporters to revisit any past negative actions by the client. (Of course, this is not foolproof; reporters can do their own research, but usually they concentrate on recent happenings.)
Second: There is no one size fits all approach to crisis communications. Every PR crisis deserves original thinking.
Each account team should include an individual who has the ability to lead any crisis specialist team that is brought in during a PR crisis. That’s because no one should know more about a client’s warts than a properly-staffed account team and it is the account team that will suffer if the “for hire” firemen crisis team fails to deliver on what they may promise.
Before retaining a crisis communication’s team — indeed, before any crisis erupts — companies should do their own due diligence by interviewing a number of crisis consultants. They should ask about the makeup of the team, how the team members were selected, what PR accounts team members have worked on, what skills they bring to the team, past PR crises they have worked on, what issues they faced and what methods they applied, and, finally, the results they achieved for their clients.
It’s best to interview each member of the proposed team individually, without other members present, to determine if they know your business.
References from previous clients are mandatory to validate the crisis team claims.
The in-depth interviews of multiple crisis consultants done well in advance of any crisis will reveal which are best suited to handle the account. Most importantly, the due diligence will reveal which type of PR crisis each consultant team is best equipped to handle.
Third: It’s essential to begin planning a client “rehabilitation” program during the crisis so it can be implemented as soon as the barrage of negative media coverage subsides. (I believe that launching the “rehabilitation” program during the media assault will lessen the chance of it receiving fair and major coverage.)
In summary, corporations in a crisis situation should be suspicious when PR crisis practitioners say they have all the answers to their problems. The results of many corporate PR crises over many, many years demonstrate that the magic of PR crisis specialists often doesn’t work. They cannot to any great extent reduce negative press coverage during a PR crisis. Companies in crisis should not expect that kind of magic – but can expect insights on how best to respond.