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Dealing with Disasters, Enemies, and Other Public Relations Mishaps

Recently, a helicopter crashed into the East River in New York City just moments after takeoff. It was the second helicopter crash in four days. The aftermath of the second crash presented public relations professionals with further evidence of two PR maxims: 1.) that your employees can be one of your best public relations assets and 2.) that to deal with a disaster, you need a season public relations team that understands what’s really important.

Your Employee: A PR Asset

Miguel Lopez was hailed as a hero after he helped rescue passengers from the downed helicopter in New York City’s East River.

“Among [the twenty-five or so people who helped] was Miguel Lopez, a worker at [online grocery deliver service] FreshDirect.com,” the New York Times reported. “Without hesitation, Mr. Lopez jumped into the water to help pull survivors to safety, according to [New York Police Commissioner Raymond] Kelly. When invited by the police to speak to the news media to take credit for his quick action, Mr. Lopez said he could not because he had to hurry back to work.”

This is obviously an extraordinary example of how an employee can serve your company in a public relations role, but it is worth noting. Your company is only as good as its employees, and your image with the public is partially crafted by your employees. Lopez’s actions during and after the event portray a selfless, hard-working man, and he shone an amazingly positive light on his company.

Many of my friends who are aware of Lopez’s story commented not on what he did to rescue people, but also his rush back to work. Lopez’s actions may have won the company some new customers. To FreshDirect’s credit, the company hasn’t tried to capitalize on what could have been a very tragic event. Other than a brief note on its web site, FreshDirect has been mum on the subject, though it’s doubtful anyone at the company will forget how one of its employees made headlines and garnered such positive publicity.

Dealing With The Aftermath

The victims that Lopez helped pull out of the water were executives at MBNA Corp., the nation’s largest issuer of credit cards. Between security breaches, lending practices, and the public’s general disdain for credit card issuers by issuers, MBNA has a tough PR road to travel recently. In the aftermath of the helicopter crash, MBNA has done an interesting job of handling the public relations crisis. The company has not issued a formal press release regarding the crash, but it did publish a message on its web site.

One day after the crash, the company held a teleconference with Freeh and Lance Weaver, Vice Chairman and one of those on board the helicopter. Weaver recounted the previous day’s events and heaped praise on his rescuers. On Monday, the company took out full-page ads in New York City newspapers thanking those involved in the rescue. Downplaying the incident, MBNA has spent its time with the media praising those who helped, expressing support and encouragement for the helicopter’s crew, and keeping the media at a safe enough distance to let people go about their jobs.

Obviously the crash could have been disastrous for all involved. All the PR people involved have handled themselves professionally and with great awareness of the important issues. It’s unfortunate that it takes a near-disaster for PR people to be shown in a good light, and it’s unfortunate that it’s only in forums like this that PR people receive credit for doing a very difficult job. Nonetheless, like the heroes involved in last week’s rescues, the PR people involved in the aftermath of the crash should know that they’ve done a wonderful job.

Dealing With An Enemy

I received an interesting email from a PR Fuel reader and I wanted to share it, along with my response:

“I work for the public communications department of a city with a large public relations problem, which is fueled to no small degree by a very popular newspaper columnist with a nasty opinion of our city leaders. It seems almost weekly that he lampoons city leaders for the decisions they make, and his words cause a great deal of grief for my department and the city government at large. Admittedly, the city has dropped the ball in some areas, and these situations should not be ignored. However, it seems our good deeds–even those that should agree with the columnist’s views–are never noticed despite our best attempts. Is there anything we can do to try and improve this situation with this columnist with a vendetta?”

On the columnist side of the equation, it’s important to remember that journalists, especially columnists, generally have massive egos. This guy probably thinks his job is to “tell it like it is,” “protect the little guy,” “rock the boat” and “stick it to the powers that be.” He’s right, of course. To an extent.

The best approach is a tough-love approach. The email to me is a good start. The writer recognizes that the columnist is justified in some of his “attacks,” but he is also correct that the columnist should recognize when government does good work. Unfortunately, the columnist is not going to change his opinion unless he has a reason to do so.

For example, as a columnist, I took particular glee in hammering a few select companies. When the  public relations reps from these companies asked me why, I told them it was because they deserved it. Granted, the answer was always more complicated than that, but the truth is, I felt compelled to attack companies and people whom I felt weren’t serving the best interests of shareholders, employees, consumers, or citizens.

Of course, I’d wince when these companies turned around and did something right, but I learned that you have to give credit where credit is due, and that you have to give readers both sides of the story. Unfortunately, we can’t expect every columnist to feel this way.

I’d suggest that the next time the columnist attacks, if it is indeed justified, call him after the column runs and say, “Hey, you’re right and we’re working it. We appreciate your efforts to be the eyes and ears of the people. However, we’re doing some things right, and we’d like to talk to you about it. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying, and we need people like you to help us do things right.”

Treat him with the same respect that you’d treat a citizen or customer who comes in with a valid complaint. Don’t kiss his butt, don’t threaten him, just listen to him and be armed with information. If the people being criticized are up to the task, ask them to sit down for interviews with the columnist. Nothing neutralizes a critic like a face-to-face meeting with his target. (This, of course, can backfire–which is why you never let anyone who can’t deal with the media actually deal with the media.)

Columnists are a difficult breed to deal with, mostly because they get additional respect in the newsroom from editors. Some beat reporters can be bullied around with calls to editors or publishers. Columnists generally don’t take crap; they just dish it out. Columnists generally don’t like to be coddled–unless they cover the entertainment business–and they don’t like to be told they’re wrong.

In the end, you can’t run a business or city government based on the fears of what a columnist wrote, and the best public relations strategy in the world probably won’t change a columnist’s mind. The best thing we can do then is to try to build a professional relationship with the columnist and try to find an ally elsewhere in the local media landscape.

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/.

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