Tips for Surviving a PR Crisis

Panel on PR Crisis

From left, Paula Veale, Camille Johnston, Dee Dee Myers, and Morgan Binswager

What to do when an employee at your organization does something deceptive or illegal and the entire world finds out at the same time as you? Or what if your boss is involved in a scandal and you’re not getting the full story but you have to face the press?

Last week I attended a compelling panel about crisis communications that we coordinated in Washington, D.C. at Pew Charitable Trusts. The expert panel, moderated by Paula Veale, our EVP of Communications, included two former press secretaries, Dee Dee Myers and Camille Johnston, and Morgan Binswager from Livestrong.

Working in PR for close to 15 years I have to admit I’ve experienced times of “crisis” where I’ve screened my calls (of course we won’t talk about those)… but it was nothing compared to what this panel has encountered.

Here are some key takeaways from the session that we can all learn from, whether you’re working in the private or public sector:

Be prepared

The panelists stressed the importance of foreseeing a crisis in advance. Do a risk analysis to assess the possibilities of any and all future crises. As communications professionals, you need to convince your leadership that it’s important to focus on crisis prevention since nothing today is every truly private for long.

Is it a crisis?

That being said, we can’t live in crisis mode, or we wouldn’t get anything done. As Johnston suggested–follow your gut. Think about whether or not this is something that anyone will know or care about. Be careful not to overreact and amplify the situation by giving it undue attention. Think about how credible the source is who’s reporting or tweeting about it. Are your detractors on Facebook/Twitter influential? But back to prevention – always have the answers in your back pocket. If it is in fact a crisis, manage expectations and explain to your leadership what they can expect to see in the media.

Be a reporter

Fact finding is probably one of the most important takeaways. Be aggressive about getting all of the information as soon as possible because information is your friend. As Myers said “don’t make public statements until you see the whole ice” (quoting Wayne Gretsky appropriately!). The worst thing you can do in a crisis is to make incomplete or false statements. Myers brought it back to Whitewater when she was given limited information. PR doesn’t drive the train but it needs to be on the train and always be informed.

Act quickly

Agility is paramount and those early minutes/hours/days are critical. I’m sure no one in our industry can forget the Komen situation. As Johnston mentioned, it could be a one day blip if the situation is handled well. Whether it’s posting a message on Facebook, providing one high profile interview or drafting an op-ed, those early hours/days are absolutely essential. But also, according to Binswager, speed doesn’t always equal wisdom so be thoughtful.

“Show some ankle” (be transparent)

When Myers said you need to “show some ankle” I saw the biggest reaction from the audience. Acknowledging there’s a problem is going to help you in the long-term versus denying that a problem exists. A recurring theme in the session was the importance of credibility, transparency and authenticity–words we hear all the time but they’re most relevant it times of crisis. If the media/press/public doesn’t trust you, you’re creating even more problems for yourself. They’ll stop coming to you and go over your head instead.

Start the conversation and keep listening

Binswager talked about the pre-established social media presence of Livestrong, which has been a big help in dealing with their crisis. Immediately after the news came out about Lance, they talked to their constituents and posted messages on social media platforms to get the dialogue going. And they continue to listen to their base.

Speak out but also let others speak for you

While your CEO can be your best spokesperson–and reporters like it when they can get right to the source–your team members and third party supporters can be even more impactful. Whether it’s someone on your staff or from another credible organization, or someone in your Facebook community, it can only help to have other voices out there making your case. And having more than one messenger, if they’re educated, can be beneficial.

Bring it back to your mission

Most important, focus on the positive and remind your staff and others in the media/public about your mission. Shortly after Lance’s interview with Oprah, the Livestrong team got together and talked about why they work there. Binswager described it as a poignant moment for everyone because they all share the same passion for helping the 2.5 million cancer survivors that they serve annually. Controversy drives attention so Livestrong saw the crisis as an opportunity to reintroduce their brand. Now they’re being proactive and planning for the ongoing repercussions. As Binswager mentioned, crisis can be like a cancer – a chronic problem to manage.

Lastly, don’t lose your sense of humor. In the early minutes of the session Binswager joked “I’m not really sure why I’m here.”

Ellyn Fisher

About Ellyn Fisher

Ellyn covers the intersection of PR, new media and social good, chronicling emerging tactics & best practices. She has over 10 years of experience in PR and currently volunteers for both the American Cancer Society and the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Find her on Google+


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