Crisis PR is perhaps the most stressful type of communication. It usually involves intense media, which can be merciless, and for a period we will be without friends.

– Some people around us will lose their cool and change strategy
– Others try and interfere thinking they know more than us
– After the event, many will second-guess what should have been done.

We need to be confident and assertive, giving clear instructions nimbly and simply. We need a thick skin.

Watch Peter Wilkinson talk about the importance of these 15 tips when dealing with a crisis:

1.   Start the ‘Crisis Team’

Critically, tell your chosen team clearly that “We are in crisis mode” – this clarity clearly flags that the ‘incident’ takes priority over everything.

Go early on this, even if it’s a potential crisis. The initial team may be four people: the CEO, the COO, the crisis consultant, the person at the coal-face.

2.   Fact check

It’s difficult, we need to act fast, but not without the facts, so it’s ‘more haste, less speed’. Beware the cost of setting off a false alarm. We faced this dilemma with what looked like a public health scare, where ‘going public’ was going to cause mass anxiety.

3.   Who are our stakeholders?

Make a list. When the going gets crazy, some stakeholders can get left out.

4.   Crisis PR: Are we in Crisis?

If it’s a media based crisis, and they usually are, think through the likely story. Is it really a big deal? Often an incident important to the executive team is a yawn to other stakeholders.  Predict how it will look: anticipate the newspaper story or social media commentary; the headline (in social, the tweets), the pictures, the first para, the responses.

Once it’s out, we can’t run, can’t hide. So should we avoid a crisis by publishing preemptively? That’s a tough call; we advised on a pollution spill where the right thing to do was to go public.

5. Crisis PR: what are our objectives

Be clear to the team on this: if the crisis is caused by media, it’s probably ‘stop the media’; if it’s financial, it’s to stabilise the financial issue; If it’s a fire…

6. Crisis PR: Assess the strength of our leadership

A crisis exposes weakness such as tensions between a board and CEO, or a lack of confidence. We dealt with one crisis that was front page news for most of 80 days. It can be incredibly stressful. Be realistic, leadership that caves-in under pressure is a common fail-point.

What support can we offer?

Listen for people starting to ‘blame the media’. In a crisis, journalists have to move fast too and small mistakes are common failure. However that doesn’t excuse a siege mentality, which is can be indicative of being out-of-step with the community.

7.   Crisis PR: Assess the strength of our spokespeople

For a period mid-crisis we may have no friends. How will we support the spokespeople? It’s especially unhelpful to criticise media performances if it’s not your task; you can be sure, most times, the spokesperson is already his/her strongest critic.

Sometimes it’s better to protect our CEO and nominate another spokesperson. It’s a way of protecting the ‘brand’.

Do we have competent/willing hands for social media?

Keep our advisers/consultants in the deep-background. People suspect manipulation if the ‘spin-doctors’ become part of the story. Strangely a lot of journalists (and public) still don’t actually understand the functions performed by public relations consultants.

8.   Crisis PR: Craft key messages

Above all be honest. Avoid jargon, and favour plain speaking.

Speak to our audiences through the journalists. A common mistake is to prepare messages to placate journalists and not their audiences.

Remember that in all communication we need to respond to the issue at hand – the Incident Message. But we also to remind our audience of the Brand Message. Plus there it’s often useful for the spokesperson to talk about his/her values – a Personal Message. And we need to be prepared that journalists will be looking for other damaging angles so prepare for Bear Traps.

And then our messages need to be clear and concise, consistent and constant: Repetition = penetration = impact.

9.  Crisis PR: Keep it Nimble and Simple

We can often set the media agenda for the day by being first. And journalists and other stakeholders respect nimble  responsiveness.

One short quote is often better than a lengthy explanation.  A useful news grab is 7-10 seconds (20-30 words).

10. Crisis PR: Keep our cool

The people around us will be watching, looking for visual and spoken clues to ‘how things are going’. There a great line in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself….”

Don’t allow ourselves to get defensive. Listen to our language; for instance,
are we using ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in our explanations.

11.   Crisis PR: Use facts carefully

Carefully, not selectively – that’s different. Accuracy and honesty of course. But while one fact lends weight to a message; two or three facts can confuse.

12.   Crisis PR: Ask others to support us

Our audiences will listen to people they trust. The less conflicted our advocates, the more credible.

13.   Crisis PR: Apologise, if appropriate

In most crises, there is an element of in-house fault. Sex abuse tragedies are a good example (lack of internal processes), so are pollution ‘accidents’ (lack of care). Exceptions are of course fires, terrorism, etc.

If needed, the best apologies have a beautiful simplicity, honesty and vulnerability. They also seem to have particular structure: First, say sorry, and mean it; beware, some spin-doctors misuse this to deceive and the audience is on the watch-out for it. Second, explain next steps such as an investigation. Third, explain how that’s going be a step towards regaining trust, such as making the recommendations public.

14.   When is the crisis over?

Internally, it’s good practice to formally stop a crisis plan’s execution, so that people who have been working with us and have  dropped everything to help, can now go back to normal duties.

15.   Don’t squib on the review

There is a golden period after a crisis when a review is essential. Don’t wait too long as people go back to normal duties, plus people become unwilling to commit resources to fixing the problem that causes the crisis.

Peter Wilkinson

Author Peter Wilkinson

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