I was privileged to serve on a panel of experts at Rider University on March 31, 2015, discussing the role of public relations in a crisis.
As a corporate communications officer for major global pharmaceutical companies, especially in my role as a product public relations executive, crisis communications was an ever-present aspect of my job.
The Rider PRSSA chapter convened a distinguished panel of experts (present company excluded) to discuss crisis communications best practices. And, based on the excellent direction of our student moderators, a number of key themes emerged.
Following are core strategies for successful crisis communications:
Plan: All organizations are at risk for a myriad of potential issues. PR pros should ensure that their organizations are prepared. No one can plan for an exact crisis, however, a close audit of your industry or non-profit sector will reveal common or potential issues. Plans with specific actions steps and processes should be drafted and drilled.
Team: While all eyes will be on the PR leader (especially from the c-suite), a good crisis communications plan requires a team effort. Multi-disciplinary teams should be recruited to the ranks of the crisis team – however, keep the team tight (e.g., one c-suite, one attorney, one security rep, one HR rep, etc.). Too many cooks in the kitchen create ego-driven delays. Spokespersons (and alternates) must be identified in advance. Decision trees should be developed in advance.
Practice: No plan is flawless, however, if drilled, plan shortcomings are uncovered very quickly. Engaging in crisis drills enables the PR pro to fine-tune his plan for the next drill (or worse, the real thing). Part of any drill should be media training for all organization spokespersons. Media training must be mandatory.
Speed: Even with a plan, timing can be an issue. In an age of immediate news and social publishing, it is essential for organizations to be empowered to respond to crises immediately. Best practices allow for spokespersons to acknowledge the crisis and ensure key publics that more information will be forth-coming. Never say, “no comment."
Truth: Truth, especially for those bound by professional ethical codes (e.g., PRSA code of ethics), should be your central strategy in all crises. Tell the truth early and often. PR pros are beholden to the organization, its reputation and its value to its publics -- not to marketing and not to lawyers. Long-term reputation management always trumps short-term embarrassment or legal exposure.
Phoenix: From the ashes rises the Phoenix. The best organizations take crises and turn them into assets. The best PR pros use crises as learning opportunities. Best practices encourage organizations to become experts in areas that were once sources of pain, legal action and reputation risk. J&J turned the Tylenol crisis into tamper-proof packaging now a manufacturing global standard.
PR pros interested in crisis communications should not be rattled easily. In the midst of a crisis, the best PR pros keep a level head and guide organizations through pain and suffering with dignity and calmness.
When a crisis is managed properly it is rarely recognized publicly and rarely praised internally. Conversely, when issues negatively impact corporate image, sales and stock prices, fingers are always pointing blame from every direction. If it is the limelight you seek, crisis communications is not for you.
This panel discussion reminded me how fulfilling it is to serve organizations and manage and prevent untoward damage to their reputation. And, the more we provide expert counsel to our c-suite colleagues, the more trust they will place in PR as a profession.