By Xanthe Vaughan Williams Director, Fourth Day PR
A PR crisis can look very different depending on where you are standing. For the media, it’s a juicy story that someone doesn’t want told. For a public relations advisor it may be an exciting and challenging project and a nice change from pitching the usual stories to bored journalists. But for the person at the heart of it, whose business or personal life may suddenly be under public scrutiny, it can be terrifying. Whether or not a situation is of your own making, or whether it’s even happened, the sudden realisation that the media are on your heels can bring about the kind of fear that makes rational decision-making almost impossible.
For this reason, a reasonably detached advisor is essential. You need guidance from someone whose own reputation is not at stake, and who is able to look beyond the flurry of incoming phone calls or social media posts. That could be someone within your organisation, but it often pays to bring in a total outsider to take a neutral look at the situation and to help you map your way out of it.
Over the years our team has handled communications for many organisations in tricky situations. These have ranged from relatively common scenarios such as layoffs and insolvency, through allegations of misconduct and investigations by programmes such as Watchdog and You and Yours, to more extreme issues including sexism, violence and even terrorism. Along the way, and learning from other experts in the field, we’ve assembled a shortlist of tips that may help you if you ever find yourself facing the wrong sort of interest from the media.
1. Get the facts straight and don’t speculate
Before you open your mouth, check your facts. A natural instinct to assure people that all is well will backfire horribly if you make a statement that proves to be entirely untrue a few hours later. This may mean that you can’t say a great deal initially, but it’s better to say nothing than to make things up and have to apologise later. It’s perfectly acceptable to issue a statement saying that you are going to find out what’s happened and report back.
2. Tell the right people first
The people who are likely to care most about your crisis are the people you work with. They can be your most dependable supporters, or they can completely misunderstand a situation and misinform others. They will also be very upset if they hear about it from someone else. You can make sure they remain on side. Whether your crisis is a planned round of redundancies, a fire at head office or an ill-judged announcement by your CEO, these are the people who need to know first. Customers, partners and media are all next. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a plan yet – just make sure that your employees know what’s happened, what the next steps are (even if these consist of “make a plan”) and tell them what to do if anyone outside the organisation asks them a question. A written statement, along with a Question and Answer document, is a good starting point.
3. Take action – and make the story yours
Deciding on a plan of action – and acting on it – is fundamental. This seems obvious but many companies spend a lot longer panicking than doing. By determining your course of action, you have a story that is once again your own. If it’s a product problem, for example, perhaps you are going to issue a recall. If there are job losses, you are handling them fairly and according to best practice and ensuring the longevity of the company. Governments have long understood the need to “launch an enquiry” in order to give the impression of decisiveness –and to regain control of the narrative.
4. Play it straight and keep your cool
If a journalist has contacted you about your crisis, provide them with plain facts (free from self-justification) as soon as possible. If you don’t, they may feel compelled to use their imaginations. And they will certainly contact your employees (see point 2).
Don’t go on TV or radio if you’re feeling stressed. Broadcast media are looking for conflict, so if you’re at all edgy, there’s a danger that you’ll give them what they want, which will do your organisation no favours. Most consumer programmes are obliged to read out a written statement from you in full, which gives you the opportunity to apologise if necessary, explain the action you are taking and in doing so, kill the story.
5. Don’t over-share!
One important point to bear in mind is that the media may not be interested in your crisis at all. It may seem huge to you, but in the greater world of news, it may not be quite as shocking – or indeed interesting – as you fear. If journalists haven’t been asking questions, then it’s absolutely not necessary to send them a news release! Nevertheless, always prepare a statement so that it is ready if the phone rings. When that happens, don’t be drawn into conversation with a journalist unless you are a real expert in the art of the interview – simply tell them that you have a statement and send it over.
6. Stay calm on social
Issue regular updates and respond to individual comments, using your statement as a guide. Aim to respond to individual queries, but if the volume becomes too high and you would have to divert resources, then consider the option of simply
issuing general posts. Again, your priority is to fix the problem.
We hope that you’ll never need to use these tips but if you find yourself in a media pickle without an experienced advisor, we hope they’ll be of assistance in guiding you through the storm.