Public relations disasters can affect businesses of all shapes and sizes. Whether you work for a Fortune 500 company, a startup, a nonprofit organization or even a church, no one is immune to a PR crisis. Though organizations can often heal their reputations with time and smart communications strategies, silence isn’t always golden.
Preparing for and managing crises will significantly soften the blow and price you might pay in plummeting sales, employee retention or a negative brand image. Stock dips, the loss of great talent and rebranding are all costly and can often be avoided if your company is prepared and nimble. Below are five must-haves not only to survive a PR disaster, but to thrive well after it has passed.
1. A detailed incident report log.
There are the obvious legal reasons to keep an incident report log, but these can come in handy in PR, too. A company should document all incidents, even the small ones. Whether you receive a phone call from a person asking strange questions or someone slips and falls on your property, keep a record. Even when something seems insignificant, it’s better to be safe than sorry. What may seem like a silly complaint can quickly turn into a disaster. One day you could receive a call from a disgruntled parent, the next day you could see that parent talking about your service, product or school on the news.
When you document incidents it helps you in two ways: First, it provides you with a timeline of events in case an incident grows into a larger problem. Second, it tracks patterns, highlighting any recurring problems that can be addressed or, even better, prevented in the future.
2. A savvy PR partner.
Partner with a PR firm early. Even if you can’t afford a retainer with a PR firm or a PR professional, consider meeting with one to see if there are opportunities to collaborate on a project-by-project basis. Establishing this relationship early, before disaster strikes, enables you to have communications professionals in your corner who can jump in to save the day without needing to backtrack and learn about your company. Because you’ve built a relationship, these PR pros will already have an understanding of your company’s business goals, strengths, weaknesses, messaging and audiences, and will have the ability to put fires out in a timely and smart manner.
3. Succinct answers to anticipated questions.
If you go into an interview or press conference unprepared, it will only spiral your PR crisis further out of control. Anticipate the questions of journalists, employees and the public, and practice your answers before taking the conversation external.
Keep your audience in mind. What are their concerns about the issue(s) at hand? Determine your core messages by deciding the three points you want your audience to remember after they walk away from the conversation, and find a way to bring every answer back to those key messages.
Then listen. Don’t assume that the communication is complete just because you’ve finished talking. Watch to see how your audience reacts and if there are any misunderstandings. If so, adapt your message as needed in order to address your audience’s concerns.
4. A foolproof crisis management plan and team.
Establish a plan of action before a crisis hits by creating a crisis management plan and electing the best team members to help execute it. Handpick people from your executive team who will bring in different backgrounds to assist with the crisis.
Make sure your crisis communications trickles down to your employees. Don’t get so carried away addressing your external audiences that you neglect your internal ones. Integrate internal communications in your plan so your employees aren’t finding out information about your company from alternative sources.
Have a plan ready to go? Great. Now put that plan to use with practice by coming up with potential crises and acting out how you would respond to them. Need ideas for PR crises? Check the news. Companies go through PR crises all the time, some for good reason and others unjustly. Think Ellen Pao’s downfall at Reddit, Jared of Subway’s house raid, Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal and Target’s credit card security breach, to name a few.
5. A rock-star company spokesperson.
Select a great spokesperson for your company: someone who does well under pressure, can think on his or her feet, knows the company inside and out and has major influence in the industry and community. Sometimes the company’s CEO or president isn’t the right fit for the job. Find a person who articulates well and put him or her through media training. Prepare your spokesperson for media announcements, both good and bad, and continue to build her or him up as a spokesperson that press will care to listen to.
A PR crisis can either make or break your business. A smart company understands that communications crises, both big and small, are inevitable. The real trick to survival is to prepare ahead of time so you can act fast and address the problem before it spirals out of control. These five components are essential elements for laying the groundwork for smart and effective crisis communications.
What must-haves are in your PR arsenal? Tell us in the comments below.
Chloe Scheller is an account executive at Red Fan Communications, a full-service public relations firm in Austin, Texas.