How to deal with crisis: tips from a PR professional

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Image by James Vaughn

If you haven’t had a chance to read my bio, I am currently an intern with the student-run firm Allen Hall PR. During a staff meeting last night, Colleen Lacter came in to speak with us. She is a career PR practitioner and currently the Chief Communications Officer for Symantec. As it happens, she dedicated a portion of her talk with us to crisis communication and tips for preparing for crisis.

I won’t even deny the fact that my eyes lit up when she brought up this topic. I immediately opened a fresh blog post and started jotting down everything she said, ferociously. Needless to say I soaked up her advice like a sponge.

So what does a long-time PR professional have to say about crisis communication?

She started by telling us about a PR fail by Symantec, prior to being hired with the company. For those of you who may not be familiar with Symantec, it’s the company behind Norton Anti-virus Software. Years ago, they experienced a source code breach, which is not a good thing for a company that specializes in computer security. The communications team at the time made one fatal error in communicating this crisis, they didn’t get accurate data about the incident. They ended up making reoccurring inaccurate statements in the aftermath; surely crippling stakeholder trust each time. They had to continuously retract and correct their previous statements. Kind of makes you cringe, doesn’t it?

Her first piece of advice for communicating after an incident; make sure you have accurate information before making a definitive statement. While this could have been a short-lived issue for the company, it ended up being a three-month-long crisis. Not having accurate information is the biggest mistake you can make in a situation like this. Keep calm. Be precise. Don’t rush communication at the expense of accuracy.

When something potentially damaging to your company’s reputation happens, it is imperative that you work fast to diffuse the situation. The ability to rally, make a decision and move on this decision is what separates those who drown in the controversy or swim their way out. Lacter explained that you generally have 24 hours to contain the crisis. Any longer and things will start going downhill rapidly.

Lastly, make sure you are in constant contact with the legal team. This is to ensure you don’t make any questionably legal or illegal maneuvers during the communication process. Run everything by legal. Just to be safe.

But how do you prepare for potential crisis ahead of time? Enter the “one-pager.” When she started at Symantec, the crisis plan given to her was 110 pages long. She disregarded the document immediately. Who’s going to read such a lengthy plan, or at least retain any information from it? Having a concise, one-page plan that identifies all the necessary people in the company, executives, legal, employees, whoever may be needed in a crisis is a necessity. Identify a core group of people to pull together in a war-room type setting in the event of disaster. Company management needs to know what to do in a crisis. This means knowing the policies and plan of action for dealing with crisis.

Textbooks may offer similar information, but hearing this advice from an experienced professional really drove it home for me.

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