One of the major benefits of my years working as a professional communicator at a major university was learning different ways to approach public relations by interacting with my peers across campus and within the central communications office. It just so happens that while at this institution, there was a full-blown crisis covered in national as well as international media concerning a very controversial subject. Although this crisis did not affect my particular area, I was nonetheless involved on the periphery, attending university-wide meetings of various PR staffers to coordinate any incoming media queries and filter them to the correct individuals. I was able to watch first-hand as longtime PR practitioners, spokespeople, and senior university administrators struggled to deal with a controversy that seemed to keep building. The number one lesson I learned, that I've worked to implement in my own professional PR dealings, is never, ever deal with a crisis with avoidance; rather, it is essential to get right out in front of any negative news and deal with it head-on.
In this particular case, senior university administrators were getting advice from two different camps pushing them in two different directions: legal advisors were warning them to keep their mouths shut, don't say anything, and hope the issue dies down and goes away. The professional communicators were urging the administration to deal with the crisis head-on, sharing important details from the university's point of view and outlining steps to correct the problem at hand and prevent a similar situation from ever happening again.
Guess who the administrators listened to?
How'd that work out?
Removing from tongue from my cheek, I will share that once things started to roll downhill even faster, the administrators stopped listening to attorneys and started listening to public relations professionals. The university was, finally, able to stem the tide of negative publicity and serve the best interests of students, their parents, alumni, prospective students, staff and educators. Unfortunately, much more damage was done than was necessary, simply due to the late start on implementing a comprehensive crisis communication strategy.
Taking this important lesson with me into my years as a PR consultant, I have had a couple of opportunities to apply best practices learned to crisis communication situations with clients. Most recently, I had a client suffering a major disruption of services affecting thousands of customers. Within a few short hours of the situation unfolding, this client began working with me to develop strategic messaging outlining what happened and why, as well as what the company was doing to rectify the situation. We identified target audiences including customers and prospects as well as industry media, competitors, and the general public. We also made a list of primary and secondary communication streams to monitor and disseminate information through, including social media. Sure enough, word began to leak out about the disruption, and a message board popular with this client's customers began to light-up with misinformation and negative postings from competitors.
As we were prepared for this, we posted a letter from the CEO to the company website and linked to it within the message board. We monitored replies to this posting for a period of time, replying to any misinformation with bullet point responses from a fact sheet we had developed. Although we had a press release prepared to share with media, we did not send it out, as the situation was being corrected in the short-term, and we did not want to stir-up any unnecessary bad press. Still, we had the press release at the ready, and had briefed company leadership that were prepared to act as spokespeople.
Thankfully, our efforts -- especially the social media intervention -- contained any bad press from getting out about the situation, and customers were notified directly via email and phone about progress to keep them in the loop and show that my client was looking out for their best interests. We were truly able to make lemonade out of the lemons we were handed, and the company was primed to use their positive response to the situation as a jumping-off point for further customer communication and prospecting.
Bad things happen to good people, technology breaks, etc. The key thing to remember from a PR perspective is you have two choices when these things occur: you can either own the situation or let it own you. Each choice has a proven effect, and it's up to the individual business owner to decide if he or she has the wherewithal to make the right one.
David D. Menzies is president of Innovative Public Relations, a PR and media relations consultancy. He is a 22+ year public relations professional with expertise in strategic messaging, publicity and branding. For more information visit www.innovativepublicrelations.com. Copyright © 2014 Innovative Public Relations, Inc.