Some media take a long time to recognize that an organization has overcome its crisis.
Freddie Mac (FM) had a lot to prove. In the era of corporate scandals, the Congress-chartered corporation created to help mortgage lenders reported that it may have understated profits by more than $4.5 million after taxes, and that prior accounting may not have followed federal securities laws.
FM has taken the long road back to prosperity, using PR to dig its image out from under the corporate scandal rubble. And it is finally garnering media coverage that doesn't reflect its scandal in the first four lines of the article.
Michael Robinson, VP at Levick Strategic Communications, worked with FM during the scandal time period. He said it was important for the media and shareholders to see the company hire new leadership and sever ties with the old.
"The media still raises this in an historical context, but not on a day-to-day basis," says Robinson. "The media will decide on its own when that time has passed. You have to show people that you've learned your lesson."
Often, like in FM's situation, a crisis lasts longer in the eyes of the media than it does in actuality. It is essential to act in a timely manner when responding to an event; no response or a delayed one can dramatically shift the way the media views a situation.
For example, after the recent hunting incident involving Vice President Dick Cheney, the media were quick to criticize the White House for its delayed response and poor handling of the crisis. "There is no amount of PR that will be able to make up for bad facts," says Robinson. "It's about changes of fact, not just perception."
Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Winter Olympics, faced its own bad press when it came to light that members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had accepted valuable gifts in exchange for giving the Utah city the winning bid that year.
Coltrin & Associates was hired to handle the crisis for the city, utilizing PR 101-type strategies to combat the bad image. The agency conducted an in-depth ethical inquiry into what happened in Salt Lake City, as well as set up public events for the new CEO of the Games, Mitt Romney. This included a spot on Today where Romney participated in a luge-like event.
Coltrin felt it was essential that the media had other things to write about besides the scandal. "The strategy of getting up-front, acknowledging that something had gone wrong, acknowledging that we were going to find it, and talking about transparency were the first things we did to create a turnaround," says Steve Coltrin, chairman and CEO of Coltrin.
David Kalson, senior managing partner at RF/Binder Partners, has worked on many crises. He suggests telling your story before someone else can tell it for you.
"The general principles that are applicable from the start with all clients that are in a crisis are the same," he adds. "You want to tell your story fast, honestly, and with transparency, as much as the lawyers will allow." He also suggests using an objective, credible third party to reinforce the message you're trying to convey to the media.
The Internet is one of the best tools that a PR pro can use in a crisis situation, but it can also be the biggest inhibitor. "You have to consider Internet strategy in every crisis situation," says Kalson. "You have to pay attention to the use of search engines and the use of links to your messages through other sites."
In some cases, bloggers have become just as influential as mainstream media. Watching what bloggers are saying about your current situation and responding is just as important as your response to any other media. Establishing a blog or news site for your client, where the issue can be addressed, is an effective way to participate in the flow of information on the Internet. It is also important to use the company Web site as a means of communication.
"This is a business that, on any given day, you could have a crisis," says Roger Frizzell, director of corporate communications for American Airlines. "But you must focus on the opportunities, not just the issues."
Be completely transparent when dealing with media and acknowledge facts, including negative ones
Utilize all tools available, including the Internet
Provide the right answer to media queries, even if you must go out of your way to find it
Send messages that are mixed. Have one clear line of communication
Be unprepared when a crisis happens. Know your strategy in advance
Let the CEO sit in the wings. CEOs should be front and center when addressing a crisis