There is no consensus among PR crises specialists about how a company should react during a PR disaster. Neither is there consensus on who should be the lead person that meets the press.
The first four questions clients always asked me when they’re in a PR crisis are:
- What should we do?
- How can we make this go away?
- Can we stop the media from reporting about it?
- Who should lead the response?
My answers are:
Let’s gather all the facts before we meet the press.
There’s no way to make this go way until the situation is resolved.
The best we can do is help manage it in a manner that puts the company in as good a light as possible. That requires us to never lie or dodge a reporter’s question.
There’s no way to stop the press from reporting on the situation.
The lead person to engage with the media varies with the situation.
These answers, in my opinion, are carved in stone, and I was never seriously challenged by clients.
However, there were spirited discussions, mostly on the client’s side, about who should lead the engagement with the media.
Here’s what I advise:
A PR person should never be the prime individual answering reporter’s questions during a PR crisis.
Why: Reporter’s want answers from company executives, not from people who journalists consider gatekeepers. Many journalists consider answers from PR people as non-answers. They believe PR people are protective of the client, and regard them as spin doctors. However, the PR person should be involved in all the planning aspects of press contact and provide media advice.
Attorneys should always play an important role during a PR crisis, but as a behind-the-scene advisor, not as a media spokesperson.
Why: An attorney’s job is to protect the client from doing or saying anything that might exacerbate a situation. Journalists take statements from attorneys with a grain of salt.
The chief executive should be used only when there are major announcements to be made not needing specifics.
Why: In most situations, the chief executive of a large corporation is unaware of the nitty gritty of a problem and can only speak about it in general terms. Journalists also expect CEOs to play down the extent of a crisis, as happened recently in the Boeing and Wells Fargo crises.
Informed, high-level executives:
I’ve always believed that the best spokesperson is the highest-ranking corporate official who knows the most about the crisis and can answer questions in detail — as long as the information has been cleared by the corporate attorney.
Why: The more specific the answers to reporter’s questions, the less likely the press will think the company is attempting to hide the truth, resulting in less negative commentary.
Seek Frequent Media Contact
Frequent contact with the media during a PR crisis will also help lessen negative coverage. This can be done several different ways:
- During a prolonged crisis, press conferences providing updates on important developments may be scheduled as needed, but never too often.
- Less important information can be posted on the company’s website.
- In addition to the above, a superb tool is a round table mini-presser with about a dozen selected journalists at a time. Because reporters invited to attend are chosen by the company, the company can filter out reporters who are less knowledgeable about the topic or have a reputation of sensationalizing a situation. The intimate setting also provides an opportunity for the company spokesperson to answer questions in an environment less hostile than an open-to-all press conference.
I’ve always been a proponent of clients meeting with the press under all circumstances, good and bad. Doing so will give the company a “media friendly” reputation, which can only work to the company’s advantage during and after a crisis.
Best PR Crisis Practices
Unorthodox approaches to PR crises work well for many PR clients. These are some rules from my playbook.
- Never be pressured to rush out a statement until the facts of a crisis are known. Until then a statement like, “We are researching the situation. At the present time we do not have any definitive information. We will inform the media when we do.”
- The lead spokesperson should be the individual who knows the most about a PR crisis and can answer questions with facts instead of general statements.
- All information disseminated to the media should first be cleared by the corporate attorney.
- The handling of a crisis should never be turned over to self-proclaimed “crises specialists.”
- An individual from the corporate PR office or an agency account manager of the client in crisis should always be the lead person in developing media strategy. No one knows the strengths and weakness of a corporation or client better than a savvy everyday PR director or account manager.
- During a crisis, an “after the crisis” plan should be formulated.
- During a crisis, any proactive responses, including advertising in major publications should be avoided. It will do nothing to change the status of the crisis and will be a waste of money.
- The best proactive response to a crisis is to be truthful with the media, stakeholders and other important publics.
- Companies with a major crisis should be prepared for a considerable amount of negative publicity over a long period of time. (Recent examples: Boeing and Wells Fargo.) Honest PR people make that clear to the client.
When a client asks what the first step in managing their PR crisis would be, I reply: “Think.” The second recommendation is: “Do-it-by-the book approaches to a PR crisis should be avoided because every crisis needs original thinking.”
Then assemble a team and construct a preliminary strategy that can commence as soon as you have enough facts to make smart decisions, usually within a day or two, with the understanding that the strategy will change as new facts emerge. Because new facts always emerge during a PR crisis, and unlike clothing, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.