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Crisis PR Overview

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 will 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 the 17 tips (below) when dealing with a crisis:

Crisis PR Checklist

Read this to the Crisis Management Team (CMT) at the commencement of crisis activities:

1. Start the CMT

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

2. Fact check

It’s difficult, the CMT will 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.

 3. Check: Are we in Crisis?

If it’s an accident (fire, injuries), a quick assessment.

If it’s a media based crisis, think through the likely story. Is it really a big deal? Often an incident that is 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 the CMT mitigate the crisis by publishing pre-emptively?

4. What are the Crisis PR objectives?

Be clear to the CMT 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…

5. List stakeholders

Who are the groups of people we need to be sensitive about? This includes supporters and critics. See the table on pp12. These are groups who will be impacted somehow by tactics we employ, or things that we say.

6. Assess the strength of the leadership

A crisis exposes weakness such as tensions between a board and CEO, or a lack of confidence. Make adjustments as a crisis can be incredibly stressful.

What support can the CMT offer the Board, the CEO?

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

7. Be realistic about the strength of the spokespeople

For a period mid-crisis, the CMT may have no friends. How will it support the spokespeople?

It’s especially unhelpful to criticise spokespeople if it’s not your task; most times the spokesperson is already his/her strongest critic.

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

Keep 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. What is our Crisis PR strategy?

  • High profile or low profile?
  • Comment? No comment?
  • Proactive or reactive?
  • Spokesperson to do interviews or media release?
  • Media or social media?

9. Craft key messages

Above all be honest. Avoid jargon, and favour plain speaking. Distinguish between honesty and transparency – they are different.

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

Remember that in all communication the CMT needs to respond to the issue at hand:

  • The Incident Message.
  • Remind the audiences of the Organisation’s Message.
  • Plus it’s often useful for the spokesperson to talk about his/her values – a Personal Message.
  • And be prepared that journalists will be looking for other damaging angles so prepare for Bear Traps.

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

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

 10. Remember compassion

  • If there are victims, have we spoken to them or their relatives?
  • Is our empathy conveyed in what we say and do?

11. Apologise, if appropriate

In most crises, there is an element of fault.

The best apologies have a beautiful simplicity, honesty and vulnerability:

  • First, say sorry, and mean it; beware, some spin-doctors misuse this to deceive and the audience is on the watch-out for it. Be specific about to whom your ‘Sorry’ is directed.
  • 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.

12. Keep it Nimble and Simple

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

13. Keep your cool

The people will be watching, looking for visual and spoken clues to ‘how things are going’.

There’s 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 the CMT to get defensive. Listen to language; for instance, don’t use ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in explanations.

14. Use facts carefully

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

 15. Ask others for support

Audiences will listen to people they trust. The less conflicted the advocates, the more credible.

16. When is the crisis over? Stop the crisis – call a halt

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

17. 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 caused the crisis. This may include:

  • A review of what went well and what went wrong.
  • Maintaining a recovery program
  • Maintaining a media strategy with ongoing review
  • Ramped up government relations
  • Continuing briefing other key external stakeholders
  • Initiating a Case Study to share learnings.

Crisis PR: It’s terrible – It passes – It’s all a learning experience

For more reading:

Media Training – An Essential Skill


Author Peter Wilkinson

More posts by Peter Wilkinson