Shakespeare knew a bad reputation is much easier to get than a good one.
Shakespeare knew a bad reputation is much easier to get than a good
’The evil that men do lives after them,’ he wrote of Julius Caesar.
Today’s crisis communicators would be wise to heed the Bard’s
400-year-old observation. When Brutus comes to call, the world will be
watching. One wrong move can eclipse dozens of right ones. What a
company or agency says and does in that critical moment may very well
determine what gets buried and what lives on.
Yet almost any PR pro can tick off a list of errors made in the heat of
the moment by communicators who should have known better. PRWeek asked
10 crisis experts to identify the most-common mistakes that can happen
when disaster strikes.
1. Communication plan? What communication plan?
The first commandment of crisis communication is the frequently preached
but not always practiced strategy: develop a flexible crisis plan; keep
it up to date; make sure everyone understands it; stage drills to make
sure the plan works.
Time consuming? Yes. Easier said than done? Yes. But many embarrassing
blunders can be avoided if companies prepare for the inevitable.
2. That trivial issue won’t hurt us
SVP/partner Ed Lansdale of Fleishman-Hillard divides communication
challenges into two categories: emergencies that suddenly disrupt
operations and attract attention, and chronic but less immediate
problems. Says Lansdale: ’If not resolved in a timely manner, problems
can erupt into severe emergencies - situations that are compounded by
the fact (or view) that the company should have known what was going on
and should have dealt with it.’
3. Let’s call a meeting first
Failure to respond to a crisis quickly has been the downfall of many PR
efforts. ’There’s a tendency by management to circle wagons and consult
everyone from attorneys to janitors before responding to the media in a
crisis,’ observes Lt. Col. Ronnie Jones of the Louisiana State Police.
Jones, who teaches media relations to law enforcement officers, recalls
that when an explosion destroyed a plant in northern Louisiana, the
chemical company that ran it refused to acknowledge any fatalities for
two days - even though reporters counted body bags being removed from
4. We can’t tell them that!
Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but better it come from you
than from a disgruntled employee or a plaintiff’s lawyer. Corporations
tread on dangerous ground when they don’t tell the whole story or let
false reports go uncorrected. ’You have to be honest, you have to be
accurate and you have to be timely,’ notes Larry Werner, managing
director of Ketchum’s Pittsburgh office.
5. No harm done
In trying to dodge blame for incidents, organizations sometimes forget
to reach out to the people they affect. Fixing an operational problem
isn’t always enough, Lansdale says. ’If they don’t tell people what they
are doing, and they don’t show empathy in the course of doing it, then
they still put their reputations at risk,’ he notes.
Following the Flight 800 crash off Long Island, TWA, a Fleishman-Hillard
client, got high marks for empathy by bringing in employees trained as
volunteer crisis counselors. ’I think TWA and its response to the
families really set the standard for what was done in subsequent
tragedies,’ Lansdale says.
6. But legal says ...
Attorneys know that anything you say can and will be used against you.
And too often, they are given the authority to develop or nix
communication strategies. Most PR pros agree general counsel should
never be allowed within 100 yards of a microphone. But Larry Kamer,
chairman of San Francisco’s GCI Kamer Singer, has other ideas. ’Some
attorneys are terrific on message and some communicators have brilliant
ideas on litigation strategy,’ he says. ’But these realities will never
be realized if people get caught in the lawyers-vs-PR pro trap.’
7. Let someone else talk to that reporter
CEOs should take visible roles when trouble strikes, not only for the
benefit of external audiences but also for employees. As well as
training the boss for media interviews, a crisis plan should include
other spokespeople who provide authority and in-depth knowledge.
8. You’re from which station?
The day your risk management VP is sued for sexual harassment is not the
best time to meet the local business editor or courthouse reporter for
the first time. Organizations that don’t build up a bank account of
goodwill with the press and public before a crisis usually find
themselves overdrawn when one hits.
9. Quick! Write a press release!
The popular strategy-over-tactics mantra is never more true than when
the, er, stuff hits the fan. ’You need to step back and think about what
road you want to go down,’ says Jeffrey Caponigro, author of The Crisis
10. We can handle this ourselves Admitting that you need help not only
is the key to a successful 12-step program, it can help you weather a
crisis as well. Too many times, CEOs keep communicators out of the loop,
fail to take their advice or don’t recognize the need to call in
reinforcements from outside.
A final warning: No two crises are alike, so PR pros shouldn’t rely on a
set of hard and fast rules. ’Quick fixes in crisis communications don’t
work,’ says Oliver Schmidt of C4CS in Charlotte, NC. But studying the
evils of bad PR might help you breathe a little immortality into the
good your organization does.
TOP 10 INDICATORS OF IMPENDING CRISES
1 Employee issues such as low morale, executive turnover and chronic
2 Other companies in your industry face hard times
3 Simmering operational issues that can boil into controversy
4 Negative buzz in Internet chat rooms
5 Increased customer complaints
6 Unexpected calls from reporters
7 Scrutiny from interest groups, unions or regulatory agencies
8 Falling profits and/or stock prices
9 Accounting irregularities, executive peccadilloes
10 Vulnerabilities that lend themselves to sensational reporting.