The Basics of Crisis Public Relations

Power outages happen, of course. When they do, I (like most people) have a battery-powered lantern, emergency radio, and a few other things to get me through an emergency. Well, to be honest, I have a full disaster preparedness kit — everything the Red Cross says I should have. Not because I live day to day expecting a power outage, but because having worked for the Red Cross, I know that it is wise for me to be prepared. That preparedness served me well a few years ago when Hurricane Isabella hit and we didn’t have power in Falls Church for almost 7 days!

When you handle public relations for an organization, your emergency preparedness kit is your crisis PR plan. Having a well-detailed plan (your disaster preparedness kit!) is best, but having even a sketchy idea (batteries and a radio) of what you would do if the CEO were caught having an affair or mishandling funds is better than nothing.

As reported in PR News, Business Week provided five tips for handling a crisis with public relations tactics. As I reviewed these tips, I found that almost all of them are the WRONG way to handle crisis public relations, in my opinion. Here’s what I have to say about it…

1. Business Week says: answer every press call, even if all you can say is you can’t comment at the present time. Fletcher Prince says this is FALSE! Saying “no comment” is the crisis public relations kiss of death. It is like handing your public response to your enemies on a silver platter. If you don’t respond about your company or organization’s stance, someone else may do it for you, and it probably won’t be the message you wanted the public to hear. I would think of a dozen ways to avoid that response, including asking if you can get some more information to answer that question and get back to them later. Then get back to them — never fail to do that. And during a crisis, you will have to prioritize your responses. I’m not saying there are any reporters who aren’t important, but I wouldn’t kill myself answering each and every call from stringers, etc. We’re talking triage, here!

2. Business Week advises: give reporters a number where they can reach you after hours for last-minute questions. TRUE. But don’t we all do that already, as a matter of course? I know at Fletcher Prince, we don’t have “normal” working hours. We’re 24-7, just like most other public relations firms. A better tactic: make sure that your phone number and update information is all over your web site, since that’s where reporters are going to go for contact information and other information “after” hours. Not just in a crisis.

3. Business Week advises, if you want to keep your comments off the record, tell the reporter before you answer any questions. Fletcher Prince says: FALSE, oh my goodness, I can’t tell you how false this is! Anything you ever say to any reporter is on the record. Period. There is no such thing as off the record in public relations.

4. Business Week says: keep an ongoing log of whom you spoke to and when, and what the conversation was about. Fletcher Prince says: True. Naturally. It will especially help after the emergency passes, so you can demonstrate to your client or company what steps you took. And how you might handle it differently next time.

5. Business Week recommends: if the issue is complex, then you may want to refer the reporter to an expert in your field who can further clarify or explain the situation. Fletcher Prince says: FALSE! Maybe I would do this in a non-emergency situation (but even then, probably not) but DEFINITELY NOT during a crisis. During a crisis your organization must designate one point-person for the media, two, tops. Your “first responders ” are someone who is handling those media calls and fielding the conventional questions (your public relations representative) and someone in the organization who has been trained on the message and can deliver quotes and credibility (such as your CEO). I would not be sending calls to engineers or technicians who might go off-message or whose high-tech comments could be misinterpreted unintentionally by a reporter. I might make these people available to the press under controlled situations, but during a crisis, control of the message — and a simple and consistent message — is critical.

Okay, so I think we have established that perhaps Business Week, which is an amazing publication in every other respect, may not be our “go-to” handbook for crisis PR. When you’re ready to hear it from the experts, I recommend reading Stop The Presses: the Crisis and Litigation PR Desk Reference by Richard Levick and Larry Smith. Not only is it informative, but the case studies make for fascinating reading. If you represent a Fortune 1000 company or major national nonprofit organization, then consider retaining a major crisis PR firm, like Levick Strategic Communications, who will analyze your potential problem areas and help you develop a plan for your organization. It will cost many thousands of dollars, but it may be the best money your company will have ever spent! Think of it like insurance.

If you run a small or medium-sized company or nonprofit, and need someone to walk you through the crisis public relations preparedness process, and even develop a plan that will serve you well, we can help you with that. Call us at Fletcher Prince (703) 582-2580. We’ll be happy to help provide the peace of mind that comes with a well-orchestrated crisis public relations plan.

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About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince (www.FletcherPrince.com). Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on July 29, 2009, in Public Relations Tips. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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