Every business regardless of size and history is susceptible to the crippling effects of a public relations crisis. As the public has become more aware and interested in the operations and practices of businesses, stakeholders have grown to be much less sympathetic and more unwilling to forgive mistakes. The availability of information increases the likelihood of crises, while social media and other online content intensifies them.
The act of managing an unfolding PR crisis is often a delicate process that requires reaction speed, transparency and strategy. Audiences will not simply forget over time, but will begin to associate the crisis with the organisation, compromising its reputation.
Evan Nierman, Founder of crisis communications firm Red Banyan Group details the three crucial steps to containing a PR crisis:
1. Determine a crisis counsellor and members of the response team.
2. Zero in on core messaging based upon the facts.
3. Create mechanisms to receive and send communications to media and other audiences.
“The crisis counsellor should be an experienced communicator with expertise in handling high-stakes and crisis situations,” says Nierman.
“Often, the most effective teams are comprised of a combination of in-house professionals with institutional knowledge and the ability to rapidly secure approvals, and external experts who can provide an outside perspective and have the ability to view situations through the same lens as journalists. Companies have to know what’s being said about them, and rapidly push out their messages through the appropriate channels.”
Another important part of managing a PR crisis is selecting who the spokesperson will be. While some believe that it should be an internal senior level position holder such as the CEO, others prefer to enlist the services of an external communications expert. On this matter Evan Nierman says the following:
“The determination to put the CEO in the spotlight or to use a PR representative as a spokesperson in a crisis depends entirely upon the particulars. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with a PR challenge or determining who should be the human face of a company’s crisis. Communications professionals can help guide organisations in times of trouble and be a first line of defense when fielding incoming media requests. In many instances, organisations benefit from the optics of a CEO stepping forward to take decisive action during turbulent times. Other situations call for a different approach, which underscores the importance of getting quality advice from crisis PR experts when the stakes are high and there is no margin for error.”
Some organisations make the mistake of being very ill-prepared for a possible crisis, assuming that no such thing will occur. This is perhaps the first point of error; companies are unprepared from the outset and then hope to be able to recover when they appoint crisis communications experts. The old adage stands: If you fail to prepare, you are prepared to fail. A crisis communications plan is therefore the first step of managing a PR crisis.
Evan Nierman brings 15 years of experience in public relations, marketing, crisis management, online media and public affairs to Red Banyan. Throughout his career, he has provided strategic communications counsel to senior business leaders, government officials and private individuals.