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PR experts share their top tips on how to manage a crisis – Part 2

Jacqueline Burns
26 March 2021 3 minute readShare
public relations

When confronted with a PR crisis, how a business responds will determine how well they can withstand the impact. Their 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.

Think about your communications as a whole

Emma Murphy, director, Quill PR

When required, the crisis communications team convenes to become the communications epicentre, liaising with other parts of the business, stakeholders (such as customers, regulators, police) and the media. All incoming and external communications should be managed and monitored by the team. If it’s a serious issue, communicate regularly and let the media know when to expect the next communique. You don’t have to take every call straight away. Keep a log of all media enquiries; it’s fine to take a journalist’s details and call them back. It’s important that your social media team know what’s happening, and if applicable, pull inappropriate social media posts. Similarly, the customer services team — what customers are being told by you should marry with what you’re saying online or in the media.

The tone of communications should demonstrate your concern, but avoid meaningless statements such as “We’re working very hard to…” Your publics would expect nothing less.

Ask ‘What would Jacinda do?’

Greer Quinn, managing director, Forward Communications and It’s PR Darlings podcast co-host 

During a crisis, human values need to be at the top list. It’s about doing the right thing — not just saying the right thing. Show genuine empathy to those who’ve been impacted — including friends, family, co-workers, but also other groups that may feel marginalised or triggered by the event. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, provided a masterclass in a humanitarian approach to crisis management following the Christchurch massacre and then again after the White Island volcanic eruption. Asking “What would Jacinda do” will set your compass in the right direction when dealing with the unimaginable. Accountability is important, too. If you’ve made a mistake, it’s best to own up to it quickly and show that you’ve learnt from it and what you’re going to do to fix it. If you make a promise amid a crisis, be sure to keep it; otherwise, that’ll erode your credibility and make any earlier displayed compassion appear insincere.

Sometimes saying nothing is the best option

Paul McKeon, account director, Mave

Your most important audience is probably not the media. In the heat of an issue, when every minute counts and reporters are baying for the organisation to make a comment, remember you first have an obligation to your people, your customers and your shareholders. If you have something to say, do so to them first. In the commercial sphere, at least, no one is under an obligation to give an interview to a reporter.

Sometimes saying nothing IS the best choice. It can mean making a strategic decision to allow a negative piece to run without your comment or resisting the urge to “set the record straight” with a long and detailed response. Journalists are not judges to be convinced of a point of view. Effective issues management means accepting that some negative coverage is par for the course. The goal is to minimise the volume, frequency, duration and impact of the crisis.

Prepare well in advance for cyber events

Hugo Shanahan, director, Shanahan Group

Make sure your leadership team has contributed to the review and development of your cyber crisis playbook. Because of the time pressures and often incomplete nature of information available during the early stages of a cyber event, maintaining confidence through factual and timely information demands plenty of careful planning and preparation. At least one cyber scenario training module must be on the agenda in 2021.

Monitor, update and learn from your mistakes

Jacqueline (Jaci) Burns, chief marketing officer, Market Expertise

Early in my career, I had to develop a crisis management plan for a global financial services firm. Back then, there was no internet, no widespread use of email. News was monitored daily, not in real time the way it is now. There was no social media, no “comments section” at the bottom of the page. If you wanted to express an opinion about something, you penned (and then mailed) a letter to the editor.

The crisis management plan I produced would now be mostly redundant. Even the risks have dramatically altered — cyber threats didn’t even exist.

Make sure you periodically review and update your crisis management plan. That includes conducting simulated training of your core team at least biennially.

Additionally, because every crisis is different, every crisis will provide you with an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Debrief after every event and take the necessary steps to address any weaknesses or gaps in your processes or plan.

Jacqueline Burns, chief marketing officer, Market Expertise. You can read Part 1 of Jacqueline’s article by clicking here.

PR experts share their top tips on how to manage a crisis – Part 2
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Jacqueline Burns

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