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A Public Relations Crisis Management Primer

Your competitor announces a new service that you’ve offered for years. One of your top executives is compromised. Your firm is sued for patent infringement. These are just a few of the many nightmares that could plunge an organization into a public relations crisis. But what’s an appropriate response to a public relations blow-up? And how can you reduce the damage done to your company or client? Through careful crisis management.

First and foremost is identifying a true crisis. While there are plenty of things that can go wrong and cause you to react with concern–if not panic–some developments are far more serious than others. The difference, however, is not always immediately obvious.

Let’s take the first case: A competitor announces a new service that you’ve offered for years. It’s easy to understand the concern that this could create, leading to impulsive actions that may not be in your best interest. For example, the first thought might be to immediately issue a press release that will “set the record straight.” At first glance, this would seen to be a quick and appropriate response.

Remember, however, that perception is reality. Sending out a hastily-crafted press release is a reactive behavior that may undermine your intended purpose; your firm would probably be perceived as playing the game according to your competitor’s rules, which increases their publicity at your expense.

Consider an alternative. Let’s assume that you have an “A-list” of journalists and analysts that have consistently viewed your company in a favorable light. (And if you don’t, start building one now!) You’d be far better served by writing each a personal note addressing the situation from a more nonchalant, but equally informative, perspective. The result will be coverage that positions you as the originator of said process while avoiding creating the perception that you’re panicking or having a corporate tantrum.

OK, let’s look at the next example: One of your top executives is compromised. That’s a real public relations crisis. Now the value of having a portfolio of planned crisis management responses becomes clear. You need to respond decisively, and your first decision is whether to act or not. In this case, some apparent crises are actually best ignored; the message being that it’s not valid and is unworthy of a response.

Admittedly, this can be tricky. If you decide to take no action, you’ll need to weigh the risk of rumors escalating outside of your sphere of influence.

Taking action can also be dicey. Active denials can backfire if it’s a serious matter that can later be perceived as true, even if the evidence is shaky or non-existent. On the other hand, admitting to a minor impropriety can defuse a situation as long as there’s nothing more serious to be uncovered. Of course, serious transgressions must be dealt with swiftly and honestly if corporate confidence is to be maintained.

Finally, the third example: Your firm is sued for patent infringement. Let the lawyers do their job. Acknowledging the claim — and filing a counter-claim, if appropriate — are often enough to satisfy stockholders and employees.

There are numerous public relations challenges that require crisis management. Each must be individually evaluated and the best response — or set of responses — chosen from a comprehensive crisis management portfolio. In the meantime, keep your lines of communications with the media and investment community open and positive.

This article, written by Stuart M. Dambrot, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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