There is something distinctly old school about some PR people’s attitude towards crisis management. They think it’s all about process and planning, knowing who does what when the balloon goes up. First sign of a crisis and their instinct is to reach for The Manual.
Part of the problem is that in a serious crisis, like a major accident, an IT security breach, the collapse of a bank, an oil spill or, let’s say, the running aground of a luxury cruise ship, nobody wants to make a mistake. Play safe and keep your head down seems to be subtext to most people’s approach.
And who can blame them in this litigious age when the media and politicians are either fighting or feeding off each other and sometimes doing both at the same time? If you were in charge of a bank or a cruise liner or an oil conglomerate why would you want to say something, however honest and well intentioned, and find yourself as a piece of meat being torn apart by the attack dogs of both Fleet Street and Westminster?
That’s why in the event of a crisis people in the eye of the storm sound at best bland, quiet and non-committal; at worst, they come across as unapologetic and evasive. This simply infuriates the media even more of course.
Importance of information flow
Another problem is that as soon as a crisis blows up in come the lawyers, who start telling the PR experts what people should and should not be saying. Their job, which is to throw a heavy legal safety blanket over a crisis situation, is often in direct conflict with the PR interests of the organisation and the senior people they represent.
Nothwithstanding the legal profession’s need to protect their clients, lawyers are not PR experts. They don’t understand the way the media works and the complexity of the relationship between the organisation at the centre of a crisis and journalists. Reporters need accurate information as soon as it becomes available. More importantly they need to know about ‘information flow’: an understanding of when facts and explanations are likely to be available. They don’t mind not being given information if the facts are not known – but they sure as hell resent it if something important that was known to the organisation at the heart of a crisis leaks out, or it finds its way into the media from another source.
Realising long-term PR dividends
At Aspectus we encourage all our clients to plan for a crisis. Who will take charge? Who will take on all the supporting roles? How will communications work? And yes, there does need to be a plan of action and it does need to be written down.
But, and this is an important but, every crisis brings with it opportunities. It’s not a matter of putting image above action, but often there is no conflict between doing the right thing and being seen to be doing the right thing. Handling a crisis with honesty, openness and humanity can pay long-term PR dividends.
Sometimes you have to trust your instincts and ask the simple question: what should we be saying and doing morally? Adopting the right and proper response to a crisis is usually the one that your stakeholders want and expect you follow. The problems arise when paralysis – and the lawyers – take hold and you shy away from saying or doing anything of substance.
Blandness, inaction and too much caution will cost you in the long term a lot more that you might imagine. Whereas a frank and proactive approach from the outset ensures you are able to harness the PR opportunity in the face of adversity.