The coronavirus chronicles: Is your crisis response updated?

CRISIS management is an important part of every PR practitioner’s life. Whether it’s a customer complaint, an accident, an environmental issue, or a matter of national significance, it is something that can affect a company’s reputation and has to be dealt with much strategic thinking and grace.

But times have changed, more so with the advent of social media and the pandemic.

“Communicators should remember that many PR crisis tenets are antiques practiced since PR was invented,” says Arthur Solomon, who was a journalist and SVP/senior counsellor at Burson-Marsteller.

While a few remain in vogue, “we should have discarded them during the last ice age.”

What are your current crisis management practices? In an article in prnewsonline, Solomon gives us some tips on Discarding Crisis PR Tenets that Were Effective During the Ice Age.

What we believe:  A good crisis response can erase negative reputation

Why it’s incorrect: “Major crises have no discard-after date,” says Solomon. Despite the smooth-talking assurances of some crisis communication experts, “PR crises have a decades long shelf life.”

He cites companies like BP (think of the oil spill), Wells Fargo, and Boeing, that are still mentioned in articles on how not to respond to a crisis. Closer to home there are flood responses, shipping accidents and tower collapses that are remembered during disasters.

What we believe:  Frequent media statements are a “must” during a PR crisis

Why it’s incorrect: In a crisis, sometimes less is really more.  Solomon says that executives of BP, Wells Fargo, and Boeing would have been better off saying less than more.

“It appears that their approaches were ‘we’re too big to fail’,” he recalls. “They were wrong. Missing was original thinking and media training. While you should keep media and the public informed when possible, sometimes saying less is the best strategy.”

In this connected world, bringing up a potential crisis can actually draw attention to it.

What we believe: Always respond to a negative story.

Why it’s incorrect: Some executives panic when there is a negative story, like a customer complaint, on the horizon. Others even have a one-statement-fits-all response, which they are eager to release immediately.

The reality is that in this fast- paced world, “many negative stories are short-lived,” Solomon observes.  “They last a day or two, at most. And unless it’s about a highly noteworthy topic, reporters will remove it quickly and seek other stories.”

One exception would be a story with legal implications, in which a prompt response it important.

Solomon’s advice: “wait a bit, perhaps a couple of days before responding.  A quick response can mushroom a story with a short shelf-life into a he-said, she said saga with legs.”

What we believe:  Releasing bad news on a weekend, holiday or during a major event will limit coverage.

Why it’s incorrect:  Before the advent of 24/7 news coverage, cable news networks and social media, releasing bad news on a Friday or long weekend was an accepted PR practice.

While it can still work today in limited instances, “all it does is delay the story until the next day’s news cycle.”

What we believe:  Respond immediately during a PR crisis.

Why it’s incorrect:  It’s best to get the facts first. Panicking before the facts are clear “often leads to the dissemination of partial news or misinformation.”  Solomon says that while it may be a controversial stance, “it’s best to wait a day or two until the facts are known.

In the meantime, saying that, “we’re gathering information and will hold a press conference as soon as we have information to disclose” is sufficient.

An exception would be when a crisis includes victims, and it is important to issue a message of sympathy promptly.

What we believe:  During a PR crisis, a top executive should be the spokesperson.

Why it’s incorrect:  Solomon suggests that the lead spokesperson during a crisis should be the executive who knows most about the situation.  For example, a lawyer can speak about legal matters.  Multiple spokespersons are fine, according to the question asked.

What we believe:  Have a crisis communication plan on the shelf

Why it’s partially incorrect:  It’s always good to have a plan that details things like who should immediately be informed of a crisis, possible spokespersons, and a checklist of first steps.

Other than those do-it-by-the-book ABC’s, “every crisis needs original thinking. Unlike clothes there is no one-size-fits-all crisis program.”

All in all, “too many of us resist change and use playbooks written years ago.  Original thinking is too often missing in crisis response communication.  We must stay current with news and trends. Doing so provides up-to-date ideas about responding to crisis.”

PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the United Kingdom-based International Public Relations Association (Ipra), the world’s premier association for senior professionals around the world. Millie Dizon, the senior vice president for Marketing and Communications of SM, is the former local chairman.

We are devoting a special column each month to answer the reader’s questions about public relations.  Please send your comments and questions to askipraphil@gmail.com.

Image credits: www.FREEPIK.COM


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