PR TECHNIQUE CRISIS MANAGEMENT - Got a crisis? Here are the no-nos - Most companies recognize the need for a good crisis plan. Yet when the trouble comes, they often make stupid mistakes. Sherri Deatherage Green compiles the top 10 no-nos

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 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

the plant.

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.


1 Employee issues such as low morale, executive turnover and chronic

workplace problems

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.

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