When the phone rang at midnight, I knew something was wrong. The caller was a spokesperson for a large, public technology company based in Silicon Valley: “We’re filing for bankruptcy in the morning. I wanted to let you know. We’re announcing it at 7:00 AM EST. Get the word out.” I quickly wrote up a story for my web site and tipped off Reuters and the Associated Press that the announcement was coming. By the time the company announced its bankruptcy, the news was already on the wire, and something bigger was going down in the sector. A public relations nightmare had been averted, but how?
Throughout the course of every business there will most likely be at one occurrence where the term “crisis management” comes into play. Politicians deal with it all the time and so do major companies like Microsoft and United Airlines. But for small and mid-size companies, a small fire can grow into an inferno. How a company’s public relations department handles crisis management can help define that company.
The key to crisis management is to plan ahead. Like a plan to escape of burning building, a plan to publicly combat a crisis can eventually save your life–your business’ life, that is. Here are some simple steps any public relations department can take ahead of time–and during a crisis–that will help pull your company through:
1. Single Point of Contact: It is essential that your company or client get your side of the story out in an effective manner. Be it a workforce reduction, lawsuit, criminal indictment, or consumer controversy, you’re under the gun. This is where good PR people shine and bad PR people lose their jobs. One member of your public relations department should handle all inquiries regarding “the crisis.” Do not let multiple members of your public relations department attempt to handle the problem; push all inquiries to one person. Let executives who are allowed to speak on the record to the press normally know that they should defer all questions to the public relations contact and not speak off the record about the issue.
2. Be Nice and Spin Off the Record: Reporters and writers normally understand that the public relations contact is merely a representative of the company, not the person who brought the crisis on. If you’ve decided that “no comment” is the only way to handle the situation, you can still go off the record and try to spin the story your way. When a company I was writing about was faced with a blistering lawsuit, their public relations contact went off the record and answered all the charges. While the official comment in my story was “no comment,” I said sources close to the company indicated that the charges in the lawsuit had already been discussed by company officials and after an investigation were found to have no merit. The company went off the record because of pending litigation. But the information got into the story and gave readers a positive message.
3. Don’t Let Reporters Push You Around: If a camera crew shows up at your business and you don’t want them there, kindly tell them they are trespassing on private property. When the Enron scandal broke, the cameras where everywhere and scenes of security personnel pushing away cameras were common. To the viewer, it makes it look like your company did something wrong. If a camera crew does show up, be prepared and pleasant. Offer to have your public relations spokesperson speak with the reporter off the record to begin with and then if necessary, on tape. There’s nothing more deflating to a reporter than when a juicy story turns into boring spin.
4. Remain Consistent: Keep your message consistent at all times, on and off the record. I’ve had instances where I’ve caught a public relations department in a lie because its message changed from one day to the next. A consistent message will keep reporters at bay and keep your company out of the bigger fire.
5. Talk To Your People: In crisis management, it’s essential that you tell your employees what’s going on. It is best to do this verbally and not in writing, because memos have a way of getting leaked. Be straight-forward with your employees because it is in this situation that they will become despondent and start mouthing off to the media. Tell them that in no uncertain terms should they discuss “the crisis” with anyone outside the company or their immediate family. Ask them to be patient and understanding and let them you’re looking out to protect their image as employees. Take the same approach with customers and clients. If your company is embroiled in a crisis, it’s important that you keep your clients and customers informed and keep their business. Work with executives, sales, marketing, and retention people to come up with a plan to spin your story to them.
A crisis can strike your business or client at any moment. It can also disappear just as quickly. Effective crisis management depends on how you, the public relations professional, have prepared ahead of time. As the public voice and face of your company, it is your game to win or lose. This is when you need to prove that there’s more to public relations than press releases and story pitches. And a good public relations pro will pull a company through hard times and in the process, become the hero we all know you are.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, 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/.