Why PR pros must align earned and paid media during crises

When a firestorm hits your organization or client, communicators can negate further damage by working with marketing and advertising teams to pause campaigns.

Data leak. Scandal. Recall. Safety issue. Fraud.

The situation might be familiar and usually follows a panicked late-night phone call from your client.

Regardless of the catalyst, those that comprise both the client-side and agency-side of PR teams are responsible for taking the lead in managing an emerging crisis or preventing an issue from becoming a full-blown crisis.

Depending on the scenario, there are multiple paths a communications team might take: issuing a statement but declining inbound requests for interviews; working to influence the narrative by way of an exclusive interview with a friendly and trusted reporter; full transparency and interviews with multiple press outlets over time.

Most of influence and molding of a crisis’ narrative happens within the PR function. Think of an oil company attempting to rebrand itself as “green” after a high profile environmental mishap or a restaurant chain trying to restore confidence in its food and its brand after a string of food-borne illnesses.

During a crisis, PR becomes a focal point, and an earned media strategy helps in influencing journalists.

However, if the paid media strategy is not adjusted to work during a crisis, your organization or client could make a major gaffe to further tarnish the brand’s reputation.

Earned media is often considered the first line of defense during a crisis, but paid media alignment is imperative in order to ensure that every interaction a customer or potential customer has with your brand is on-message.

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In addition to their global or regional PR agencies, most Fortune 500 companies also have a mix of media, creative, digital and social agencies—and aligning these can be a daunting task. Many of these agencies are getting smarter about routinely avoiding standard “unsafe” content such as drugs and crime, but strategies that constantly push content and ads are often not pointed enough to proactively avoid placement within or next to a negative story about the organization itself during a crisis.

Consider an organization that has issued a major recall due to a hazardous defect. Now imagine a person reading an article about the recall—and whoops, there’s a banner ad talking about summer discounts on the very same product. Talk about adding insult to injury.

To whatever extent the negative news coverage temporarily impacted the user’s perception of the brand, the pairing of that story with a self-unaware ad campaign can eave a bad taste in a potential customer’s mouth.

So, what cross-functional marketing issues should PR pros keep in mind when a crisis breaks?

Given the number of digital marketing, social media, ad and PR campaigns that might have been active prior to a crisis event, it’s imperative that internal marketing leads and external agencies come together early in the process to quickly audit active campaigns—and adjust or pause those that might work counter to crisis containment efforts.

Just as PR teams work to carve out a message and strategy to control chaos through earned media, paid media requires the same level of attention to ensure that all efforts are free of potentially harmful content.

The process of sharing knowledge among PR and marketing teams should start before a crisis ever arises, and check-ins should be scheduled both regularly and to prepare for new campaign deployment or messaging overhaul.

Ask your clients whether they’re using brand safety controls when deploying ad campaigns, and what types of contextual clues or keywords they’re looking for. With this information at the ready, you can be better prepared to provide informed counsel should trouble strike. What’s more, PR and marketing teams will be aligned on important words, messages and content to stay away from, ensuring a truly cohesive media campaign.

In the event a crisis does arise, pull in the appropriate paid media, advertising teams and agencies early on. Since you’ve already set the foundation for a strong working relationship, the crisis can be managed smoothly.

Together, evaluate brand safety measures to ensure that digital ads are not seen alongside distasteful or otherwise harmful content, and pause ad campaigns wherein the contextual editorial content or sentiment is potentially damaging to the brand. Do not revert to the original ad campaign strategy until the crisis has passed or the earned and paid media strategies have achieved their goals.

The effect of PR pros working with paid media teams is both known and measurable: Once incorporated into a firm’s standard operating procedure, the likelihood of subsequent brand damage is reduced dramatically.

Zach Schapira is currently product marketing manager at Sizmek. Prior to joining Sizmek, Zach served as a deputy platoon commander in Israel’s Special Air Forces.


(Image by Jon Svia)


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