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Public Relations During a Crisis: Balancing Truths

Alan Taffel, President, Taffel Communications

Over the course of an entrepreneurial company's history, odds are that at least one crisis will occur. It might be no more than a temporary blip—a poor earnings report or a minor product recall, for instance.

Or it could be serious enough to threaten a firm's very existence, such as a scandal, bankruptcy, or product catastrophe. Surprisingly, despite these wide variations in the type and extent of potential crises, the proven best approach for publicly managing them is unwavering. Here is a high-level overview of that approach.

The Objective

Before discussing what crisis management entails, it is important to understand its objective. The goal of crisis management is not, as some may believe, to mask or discount what has occurred. Sweeping things under the carpet nearly always backfires; the press can smell a lack of full disclosure and is only too happy to dig up and fill in embarrassing missing details for the public.

At that point, the company will have lost control of its own story, and will thereafter be condemned to playing defense. Only by controlling the public message can a company achieve crisis management's real objective: to minimize a crisis' impact on a company's image, financial health, and long-term viability. How can this be done? Read on.

The Strategy

As soon as a company experiences a crisis, it falls under a media microscope. While this is obviously a bad time for such scrutiny, increased media attention also affords a company an opportunity to reinforce its strategic importance and its values. By doing so, the public's focus can be expanded beyond current misdeed or misfortune to encompass the larger question of what sort of company this really is. The public will forget—or at least forgive—a firm's foibles if they see it addressing its problems decisively, transparently, responsibly and compassionately.

An effective crisis management strategy, then, is candid about the ugly truth of the situation. But it balances those truths with a constant, more positive information flow demonstrating the company's effective handling of that situation, and its empathy for those who have been affected. Notice that this strategy relies entirely on a company maintaining control of the message. Here is how that is done.

The Plan

As a first step, every company should create a standing, documented plan spelling out how it will handle a crisis from a public relations standpoint. The plan can be developed by a qualified internal or external resource, but the important thing is to have it ready in advance—there will be no time to write one during the frenzy of a crisis.

The plan designates the core members of the small group that will form the crisis management team, which is typically the CEO, CFO, general counsel, vice president of marketing/corporate communications, and any retained external crisis management expertise. This team makes the decisions and takes the lead in the event of a crisis. The plan also includes the processes and communications protocols that will govern the firm during a crisis, including specifying who will act as the external spokesperson.

The Announcement

Once a company is aware of a crisis, it should convene its crisis management team to determine the facts as they are known and to plan an initial announcement.

The latter should take place as quickly as possible following the "event." Why? Though human nature (and sometimes legal considerations) often sway managers to hold off on announcing a disaster, controlling the message requires being the first to convey it. If the crisis comes out as the result of a media investigation or an internal whistle blower, not only is control lost, but the company will be vilified not only for the disaster itself, but for appearing to have engaged in a cover-up.

Similarly, leaks can ruin a company's opportunity to shape the message, so briefings to internal and external parties should be kept to a minimum.

In keeping with the strategy described above, the announcement itself, while factually detailing the problem, should place equal weight on the steps the company is taking to address it. Regardless of where the crisis's cause or blame lies, the company should take responsibility for it and express regret and apologies to any who may have been hurt by it. Contrition, whether or not it is warranted, goes a long way to re-building public goodwill.

Of course, an announcement of this nature has many audiences: business and trade press, industry and financial analysts, employees, shareholders, and the public at large. Because of the sensitive and often legally "material" nature of the announcement, it should be disseminated to all constituencies simultaneously—for example, an e-mail could be released to employees at the same time a press conference is convened for the media—and with absolute message consistency.

And while in other situations it may be advantageous to provide a favored reporter with an exclusive in exchange for greater coverage, in a crisis this technique is neither necessary (there will be coverage aplenty) nor beneficial (other news organizations will only be resentful).

The Follow-Up

After the initial announcement, follow-ups represent the best way to reinforce a company's corrective actions, its long-term health and, implicitly, its character. Therefore, as with the initial announcement, it remains critical to control the follow-on message.

To do this, schedule frequent, periodic press events whether or not there is news to report. This approach demonstrates transparency, and provides the press with accessibility and the continuous information flow described above. Here again, human nature and legal fears often compel companies to remain closed off during a crisis. But as before, this only places the press—rather than your company—in control of the message.

Over time, as the initial crisis recedes, public attention may wane. The media may become weary of carrying pronouncements of progress. At this point, giving a reporter an exclusive may be the best way to get coverage. Beyond that, enlisting other marketing venues that offer full control—such as advertising and the corporate Web site—allows a company to reinforce its progress toward normalcy and its message of integrity.

Core Product and Services

A key component of the above strategy is generating public goodwill toward a company, despite its dire straits. There are few better ways to do this than to ensure that core products and services continue to work, and that customers receive a high level of support. Not only does this foster goodwill, it is a positive news angle, and helps in maintaining the financial health and customer base that are essential for a company's long-term viability.

Summary

Crises are inevitable and will always make their way to the public. So rather than trying to hide the problem, get out in front of it. Be forthcoming, but balance the ugly truth with other truths about your company's concerns for those affected, and the actions you are taking to resolve the situation. This, perhaps even more than the crisis itself, tells the public what kind of company you are and positions the company for a healthy emergence. That this strategy works has been proven by countless well-known companies who have used it to overcome critical situations. Properly applied, it will work for you, too.

© 2007 Alan Taffel. All rights reserved.

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