By: Hunter Frederick— Contributor
In light of the Boston Marathon tragedy and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas this week, it is becoming more apparent and crucial that there is a need for PR professionals to be able to react in a time of crisis. In May, I will be graduating with my bachelor’s degree in PR and I have to admit I am rather disappointed in my educational institution’s lack of teaching, what I believe is an essential tool in PR. In doing research, I have discovered that most undergraduate PR programs across the county lack the ability to teach the art of crisis communication. In this day and age, the need to keep calm under pressure is becoming a requirement for most PR jobs.
I am very lucky that I was thrown into an internship that required me to learn these skills rather quickly and I was able to apply them to my educational career. Because of this, I have been able to create my own crisis management firm. Originally, I was worried that my ability to retain clients might be difficult, but what I soon discovered is that everyone goes through crisis. Some big, some small. Some all over the news, others all over town or just in a circle of friends. Regardless, the knowledge of how to persuade your publics to “take your side” in any given scenario can come in handy.
Over the past couple years of doing this, I have developed some essential tips in handling a PR in a time of crisis. Below are four tips that I believe many PR professionals forget about during a time of crisis and I think are vital for being able to come out of a crisis on top.
1) You mess up, you fess up
In the day of the 24-hour news cycle and social media, the ability to “sweep things under the rug” is becoming difficult. Judy Smith is known as “America’s Number 1 Crisis Manager”. In her book Good Self Bad Self she says, “it may come as a surprise but the American people are very forgiving. Look at Tiger Woods. We have accepted him back into society and back into the world of golf even after his cheating scandal”.
People often mistake an apology as an end-all-be-all way to solve a problem. When the problem does not go away after an apology people often become very frustrated and just give up. An apology, if sincere, communicates that you truly have a feeling of regret for what has happened. This does not “solve” the problem. This merely expresses that you are aware there is a problem, sorry it happened and are hopefully making strides to fix it.
2) Assign ONE spokesperson for your organization
This is tricky because depending on the size of your crisis you may not have much of a choice as to who is communicating on behalf of your organization. Take the Boston Marathon for example. In such an event, there is probably a PR person who is in charge of the overall brand of the marathon. After the bombing, several government agencies are now involved. Boston Police, FBI, ATF, Homeland Security, the Mayor’s Office, the Governor’s Office, etc. All with their own PR people and brand to protect. At this point, you have lost the ability to communicate about the problem because it has become bigger than you have. Now, this is an extreme case but you can see where five different organizations communicating about the same event can become a mess.
Let us get a little bit more realistic. Let’s say you are the PR person for a relatively large university in a metropolitan area. You find out that your dean of students has been having “inappropriate relationships” with a handful of students. The decision has come to fire the dean but you are left with communicating this to your publics (news media, faculty, staff, students, investors, community leaders, etc.). How do you say it? How much do you say? Do you say something different based on who you are speaking to? Chances are everyone involved in the firing of the dean has their own answers to these questions but at the end of the day, the responsibility comes down to you. What is scary is someone may think it is his or her responsibility to speak on behalf of the university. So you decide to write an initial letter that will be sent out to all your publics giving as little detail as possible with the promise that you will release more information once a formal investigation is complete. You do this to not only protect the university and the students involved from PR and legal matters, but also the Dean who is involved. Innocent until proven guilty, right?
But let’s say your director of human resources disagrees with all this and decides to call a local reporter and tell them “what really happened”. The next morning it is all over every paper, radio and TV station. ONE PERSON!
3) DO NOT speculate
When your crisis first breaks, you are going to have pressure from the media asking fifty different questions at a very rapid pace to try to throw you off. Your background in PR is going to want to answer them all quickly because you have been taught that is the best way to handle things. Normally yes, in this case NO! It is okay not to know every answer right away. Tell them you do not have that answer right now but you are working on it and promise to get back to them shortly AND FOLLOW THROUGH!
4) Have a plan
One of the best things you can do in a crisis is to have a plan in place for scenarios that would cause your organization to be in a state of crisis. Depending on what your organization does will require a different list of scenarios. I had the privilege of rewriting my college university’s crisis communication plan when I was a senior. The plan was old and had not been updated since the 90s. There was no mention of active shooter scenarios or terrorism threats. Now granted in a time of crisis will you have time to look at the notebook and go “okay, it says on page 30 that if there is an explosion that causes fire we should evacuate,” no. But, having a plan in place for who talks to the media, where your staff meets after the crisis etc. can save you and your company time in a pinch.
Hunter Frederick is currently starting up his own firm, Frederick & Associates ,which has already worked with a handful of clients. Be sure to follow Frederick & Associates on Twitter at @FredandAsso and on Facebook.
We send our thoughts and prayers to all those affected by the Boston Bombing. Stay Strong.