By: Benjamin Perez
This week, Sylvester Palacios, Jr., an account supervisor from Pierpont Communications, came and spoke to Texas PRSSA about managing crises in PR. Below is a detailed rundown of what he discussed.
First off, if you work in PR in some way, shape or form, you’re going to have to deal with crisis communication. As a PR professional at an entry-level position, you will primarily be doing a lot of the lower level ground work such as research, media monitoring, monitoring mentions on social media, drafting news releases and building media lists. This is the kind of work the higher ups count on to deal with crisis situations quickly. After a few years, your responsibilities will increase to a point where you may be in a position where you’re telling the CEO of a company what to say and what not to say.
In order to rise through the ranks within a PR firm, you have to be assertive. You must be able to get in those meetings between the CEO of a company and a PR professional and you have to listen in to the types of strategies are designed in these meetings. You have to volunteer to work on drafting a crisis communications plan and reaching out to reporters in order to provide any updates on an ongoing crisis situation. These things will help you learn more and will allow you to get your foot in the door. Second, you must also be trustworthy. You must make sure that you’re the type of person your clients can confide in you because the more you’re trusted, the more responsibilities and opportunities you’ll get/be able to handle.
There is no one size fits all for crisis plans, but there is a process that will help you develop a crisis plan. The four steps in this process are as follows:
- Listen and Anticipate
- Assess and Diagnose
- Act and Adjust
- Review and Recover
Listen and Anticipate:
As a PR professional, it helps to be in the know about what is going on within your company, with your clients and in the PR industry. It also helps to get out of the bubble. You have to be able to interact with employees and companies that you don’t normally interact with. You must be able to listen to the media to see what other sectors are doing along with community groups in the area. By doing this, you can possibly root out potential issues before they escalate.
Assess and Diagnose:
When you’re assessing a situation in order to diagnose a problem, it helps to ask questions. Questions such as “What do we know? What don’t we know? What are we doing now? What do we plan to do in the future? How might this affect our organization?” are the types of questions that we all need to be asking because these questions can help answer the why, the how and the what if. By asking these questions, you will be able to assess a situation and get all the needed information before hand in order to make an informed decision on how to act.
Next, as a PR professional, you want to be first to your story because you want to be able to shape the story. If the media or your competitors get to your story before you do, they will be able to shape it to where it’s advantageous to them and disadvantageous to you. You also want to respond quickly to a story because prompt actions often result in positive feedback. You don’t want to be seen as not taking your job seriously if you’re taking too long to act on a situation. However, before you act, you must be informed. If you’re just focused on reacting quickly to a story rather than taking the time to get informed on what’s going on, more than likely you will just cause more problems.
Lastly, no one person is ever responsible for solving a crisis all by themselves. Therefore, it is important to have a crisis management team assembled ahead of time so that you will be ready to act as soon as a crisis hits.
Act and Adjust Tips:
- Immediate action plus long-term outlook equals a smart response.
- Communication style should be straightforward and candid like a real human being.
- Choose your spokesperson carefully and prepare them effectively
- People first, always; don’t ever speculate.
- When you can’t say, say what you can
- To communicate unpopular positions, focus on the process in addition to the outcome.
When working with executives:
- Be the source of crucial information.
- Be the cool head in the room.
- Your domain is anticipating reaction among external audiences to decisions/announcements (or lack of action); own it and share your perspective.
- Some of the phrases you must use when talking with executives are “Help me understand how this affects so-and-so? If we were asked… how would we respond? One possibility is… how should we prepare for that?”
- Don’t be afraid to take on the attorneys to balance legal liability with reputation damage (both of which have substantial cost).
How not to respond:
- Operate at a business-as-usual pace.
- Point fingers, outside or inside your organization.
- Assume you can control every aspect of your response.
- Talk to and make decision based only on those “in the bubble”.
- Be defensive, in either manner of response or tone of messages/spokespersons.
Remember, crises are fluid. Things tend to change rapidly so you must be able to keep the pulse and constantly assess what’s going on.
Review and Recover:
Usually, crises are not as bad as you think. Make sure that you asses what went wrong and what went right. Remember, dealing with a crisis situation is a marathon, not a sprint. Next, take fuel out of the old story and start a new one. Take the good things that you did and use them to shape a new story that overshadows the bad one. Lastly, some acts of goodwill can go a long way because when a crisis hits, those you have helped in the past will be more forgiving of your mistakes.