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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Managing Your Online Reputation

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Image by Lapideo

Reputation management is the primary underlying goal of crisis communicating. I will take this opportunity to look at ways to manage your personal and professional reputation online, focusing on how to present yourself for potential employers.

Social media has become one of the most, if not the most, important aspects of communication in recent years. At any given moment a massive audience is able  to see content and messages you post.  So how do you know what is safe to post and what to leave out?

This infographic posted by CKsyme Media Group provides a roadmap for making a responsible decision with posting content on social media.

79 percent of job recruiters said they will look at a candidates online presence before hiring and 70 percent say they’ve rejected a candidate due to something they saw online. As a soon-to-be college graduate aspiring for a career in communications, I am constantly looking for information about how I can maintain an admirable reputation for myself on social media.

53 percent of employers said they’ve discarded candidates based on posting provocative or inappropriate pictures online. Guess I’ll have to think twice next time I want to show some skin on Facebook.

The infographic goes on to break down issues regarding drinking and drug use, posting about significant others, slandering coworkers, and posting suggestive song lyrics.

Personally, I struggle with understanding the extent to which I should “clean-up” social media sites. How far back do I have to go in this clean up process? For example, my Facebook activity is of sensible repute as of late. But go back far enough and I still have suggestive pictures from high school most of which involve drinking. I would prefer not to erase those memories from my profile, as they are part of who I am and my past. Will this content cause me to get nixed from a potential position, despite dating back several years? Allie Klein gives good insight into what images should be taken down or at least hidden in her article How to Clean up your Facebook Before You Apply for a Job or Internship, “Ask yourself if you would be comfortable sitting next to your boss as he/she looked at it. If the answer is no, delete.” Fair enough.

The pervasive final criteria for whether or not to post content; will anyone care? I find this to be the most difficult part of creating content. I am constantly piecing together an understanding of what will produce a response with peers on social media. The way I see it, the more information you take in and gaining an understanding of what other people are talking about is key in this search for creating interesting content.

As a quick segue to corporate or brand reputation I will refer to a piece of insight given to me on a recent conference call with TJ Kelly, the Vice President of Digital at Edelman San Francisco. He said that everything you/your company does in the past establishes reputation, everything you do going forward builds trust. This knowledge is especially important in managing the reputation of your company, but is also be useful to your own personal social media strategy.

The Bieb’s Strikes Again

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Image by Mattias Karlsson

Last Thursday’s breaking news, Justin Bieber was arrested for illegal street racing, driving under the influence and resisting arrest. Can’t say I’m too surprised. When I saw this story my first thought was, how will he communicate in the aftermath of this incident.

As of now, he hasn’t made a statement.

One of the most important things to do in the wake of any crisis is to make a timely statement. The fact that he has failed to do so is only hurting his image further. Well that and the fact that just two days after his arrest he took off on a vacation to Panama. Silence can be beneficial for allowing an issue to die in the public sphere. But that can only happen after an initial  communication plan/statement has been executed by the party involved.

The way I see it, there are two paths to choose from in this situation.

  • Take the reckless/careless Miley Cyrus approach
  • Publicly apologize, ask for repentance, and check himself into a rehab program

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the former.

When I was younger and Lindsay Lohan rebelled, she was outcast. Her public reputation was ruined for the better part of decade. She has begun to gain more acceptance recently, but too little too late. Now days it seems as though the new “cool” PR stunt for teen celebrities is to unapologetically rebel in the wake of crisis.

The public’s response to controversy is really something to appreciate. These unruly youth are stirring the pot, grabbing people’s attention and holding it hostage. It takes away the need for young celebrities to publicly disgrace themselves by apologizing, tail between their legs. It’s a new form of reputation management. Diverting blame, making the public forget about indiscretions by creating new controversy.

I can’t help but wonder what Bieber’s PR team or publicist is thinking. No doubt they are hashing out a plan, deliberating on how to handle the press fallout from these charges. What Bieber needs to do is to take a media offensive in an attempt to restore his image.

For that matter, did Miley’s publicity team suggest creating her “bad girl” image, or did she simply go against their more sensible advice? Contrary to Lohan, she was able to make this new image work for her. Her music is still popular. People still like her.

As he enjoys his tropical vacation elsewhere, the public’s anger towards Bieber has continued to boil back in the states. This has resulting in a petition to deport him back to Canada. “He is not only threatening the safety of our people but he is also a terrible influence on our nation’s youth. We the people would like to remove Justin Bieber from our society,” reads the petition placed on the White House’s “We the People” site.

In addition to this he has been banned from various radio stations, businesses and other organizations across the world.

Food for thought…

 

The Fall of a Governor… Or is it?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has had a rough couple of weeks. Last week he was the top candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, now his future not so certain. Evidence of the Christie administration purposely closing the George Washington Bridge emerged and has set in motion the latest and greatest example of crisis communication. Since this fact surfaced Christie has been taking considerable heat, including becoming the target of investigation by the federal government.

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Image by Boris Rasin

So lets take a look at how he/his administration dealt with the incident.

Part 1

Immediately after the news broke, he denied and dismissed the allegations. This was his first mistake. His attitude was defiant and dismissive. While no one likes to take blame for something this damaging, he should have made a statement that reflected a bit more concern. Something along the lines of, “To my knowledge my administration took no part in this, but we are investigating the matter thoroughly…”

Part 2

Last Thursday, Christie held an abnormally long press conference in which he apologized for the actions of his administration. He claimed that he had no knowledge of events that transpired. Media reaction was mainly positive, a win for Christie no doubt. Pending a federal investigation into the matter, Christie’s image may be salvageable after all, at least to a degree. Despite his seemingly sincere apology, his leadership and managerial abilities are still in question. How effective of a leader can he be if he can’t even control his own people, high-ranking ones for that matter? And this is/was the leading candidate to be our next president.

Any remaining damage to Christie’s reputation will have to be owned by him at this point. He used every available tool for controlling the fallout of this incident:

  • publicly apologized
  • fired and disgraced the people in his administration who were involved
  • clearly explained his knowledge and actions during and after the incident

In other words, the textbook public apology plan.

“It’s an art form, the sorry-but-not-really-sorry, because in most cases, what they’re really sorry about is getting caught,” explained Jason Gay, a blogger for the Wall Street Journal.

It is unfortunate that this is the case. I’ve always found these alternative motives to be transparent and naturally expect the person involved has more to hide. Call me a skeptic, but I see it as insight.

The interesting thing about crisis is that once trust has been questioned in an individual or organization, there tends to be a snowball effect. For Christie, this came in the form of a separate Federal investigation into how he used the Hurricane Sandy relief fund.

I find it ironic that Christie gained his political clout because of his offensive communication after the Hurricane Sandy crisis, but now he finds himself on the other end of the spectrum.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It would surprise me to see him on the ballot in 2016 after this, but you never know for sure how the public will react.

 

And so it begins.

6148364427_99ddf74fa9_zDisaster does not discriminate. Communicating during a crisis is one of the most important, yet uncertain aspects of public relations. It is an inevitable fact that businesses, organizations and people will experience incidents that threaten their reputation in the public sphere. Public opinion is a fickle thing… PR acts as a life raft to prevent those in crisis from drowning. This blog will take a look at the ins and outs of crisis communication, how to prepare for crisis, how to deal with unexpected disaster and how to rebuild image after the fact.

The purpose of this blog is to understand the intricacies involved with communicating during a crisis by critiquing real world examples, both successes and failures, while also looking into reputation management techniques.

I’m a writer and a strategic thinker. What I lack at this point is an in-depth knowledge of how to go about communicating after an incident. I plan to go into the field of PR and marketing, or public affairs as a career. At some point I will undoubtedly be in a situation where I have to deal with a client mishap. How can trust be maintained in the public’s eyes after a crisis? What makes a crisis communication plan effective or not effective? This is what I will investigate in this blog.

To see more about my professional experience click here.