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PR experts share their top tips on how to manage a crisis – Part 1

Jacqueline Burns
19 March 2021 3 minute readShare
PR crisis

When confronted with a PR crisis, how you respond will determine how well you withstand the impact, writes Market Expertise chief marketing officer Jaci Burns.

Every business is vulnerable in some way, to something.

Your words and actions will influence the duration of the crisis, and the severity of the damage to your brand and reputation.

A crisis can take any number of forms. For example, it might stem from a data security breach, a criminal investigation, a product recall or a workplace accident.

Whatever the issue, whatever your business, when disaster strikes, it is imperative that you seek and accept advice from experienced PR pros.

Ignoring the issue is unlikely to make it go away. In fact, it will probably make things worse.

I asked a bunch of my PR pals to join me in sharing one piece of advice for businesses that are confronted with a crisis. Here’s what we think.

The buck stops at the top

Viv Hardy, managing director, CallidusPR

Reputation is fragile. What takes years to build up can be lost in a matter of hours. For most organisations, the buck stops at the top. It’s the board’s responsibility to ensure that there is an effective crisis management plan in place that has been robustly stress-tested, complete with “black swan”* events. In fact, we have seen recently a black swan event in the resources sector that has claimed the scalp of both the CEO and the chairman. The bottom line is if a board is committed to surviving a major crisis, it must bring in the senior management team — including the public affairs professionals — at the very onset, as only they have the thorough knowledge of the details and the expertise to guide it through this treacherous process.

*A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterised by their extreme rarity, severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight. (Credit: Investopedia)

Show concern and open a dialogue

Louise Nealon, founder and CEO, Louise Nealon PR

While your lawyers will advise you not to apologise, or accept liability, you can still find a way to show concern for the people or places affected, and it’s important to do this as soon as possible. It helps to get the CEO or chair involved in this decision-making process and work with them and the legal team to see what you can communicate.

Open a dialogue by sharing what details you can and update these facts as more information comes to light. Create a way for people to air their grievances or worries and commit to improving systems or policies. This shouldn’t affect your legal standing but allows you and your organisation to stand up, own the situation and start to take effective action.

Planning is key

Jo Stone, PR and communications specialist, Sticks and Stones PR and It’s PR Darlings podcast co-host

The best thing you can do when you are faced with a crisis is refer to your crisis management plan, and so often, that plan hasn’t been done, which can cause a crisis of its own! A crisis management plan should be high on the “To Do” list for all companies. Without a plan, you are scrambling and good decisions are very rarely made on the run. Your plan also needs to be regularly updated so when you need it you have all the right contacts including correct phone numbers, updated names of response staff and job descriptions to make sure all bases are covered. Even if the scenarios in your crisis plan don’t match what you are facing now, you can adapt and pivot where necessary because you will have a solid base to work from. Planning is key to surviving a crisis in business.

Know the facts first

Nicholas Owens, director, Sefiani Communications Group

Know all the facts before communicating. There’s nothing worse than issuing a comment only to have to backtrack later. Credibility is everything in a crisis response and, once gone, it’s hard to regain.

Crisis response is a 360-degree exercise. Media are important but so are employees, customers, partners and regulators. Factor them all in, but assume anything said will find its way to media.

With media, stick to written statements as the best way to control what is attributed to your brand. If the situation builds, your lead spokesperson may have to face media, but usually not.

Don’t overcommunicate. Address the issue at hand and leave out extraneous information. For media, this is a feeding frenzy and it’s your brand on the menu. The more material you provide, the more oxygen the story has. Eventually, media move on — you want to get to that point as quickly as possible.

Jacqueline Burns, chief marketing officer, Market Expertise

PR experts share their top tips on how to manage a crisis – Part 1
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Jacqueline Burns

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