Five top tips on how to survive a PR crisis

What does a good crisis response look like in 2020? Alex Davies, Director at Hanover Communications, told PRWeek’s PharmaComms conference how to avoid turning a PR crisis into a drama

The essential quality of a crisis is that it comes out of the blue. So how can you ever be truly ready for one? “You can’t prepare for the individual circumstances, but you can prepare for how you’ll manage it,” says Alex Davies, Director at Hanover Communications, who knows a thing or two about handling corporate crises for clients. He shared some of his key insights with delegates at the PRWeek PharmaComms 2020 conference. 

1. Make sure you have a crisis-management bible (and remember to use it!)

“Good prep means having a crisis-management bible,” says Davies. “This has a series of your key messages; it lists who are the experts you can go to in the middle of the night; it outlines how you’d get your response written, and it has some key lines on the things that might affect you as a business.”

It may sound obvious, but once you’ve created your crisis bible, don’t forget to use it! “You wouldn’t believe the number of times people forget they wrote a crisis-management Bible for exactly this eventuality, or don’t know where it’s saved,” notes Davies. “When the time comes, follow the rules that you agreed and you communicated to other business leaders.”

2. Know exactly who’s doing what – and who to talk to next

Your crisis bible should also cover your key team. “Knowing who is doing what in a crisis period is fundamental,” says Davies. “People need a clear set of responsibilities: whose job it is to approve documents, whose job it is to write them, whose job it is to handle social.”

He recalls how, while working at AstraZeneca, he was asked to join the company’s global crisis board as a ‘board writer’: “I thought: this is amazing, my first job in pharma, and I’m on the crisis board! But actually, ‘board writer’ was literally the person who wrote down what the global crisis team were discussing on the whiteboard. Everyone’s job was so precise that you knew exactly what your role was during that 24 hours after a crisis.”

Working in healthcare comms, Davies’ own crisis dream team would include a lawyer and a medic, as well as communications people. And it’s important to keep frontline staff’s skills fresh. “Make sure you have media-trained experts, and you train them at least once a year,” he says.

3. Get a crisis-response statement out within two hours – and follow it up

“Be ready to make two statements; the first as quickly as you possibly can,” says Davies. “The second when you know more and can give more detail – but it should still come within 24 hours.”

“Remember when Harry and Meghan split up with the Royals on Instagram? The Buckingham Palace press office knew nothing about it in advance, but still managed to get out a two-sentence statement within a few hours,” he continues. “They did that so as to have some kind of control of the narrative – and, crucially, set out what the next steps would be.” 

So, you’ll need an emergency approvals process that is faster that your usual one. “In the period of crisis, you won’t have two weeks to issue a press release, you’ll have two hours,” he notes. 

“In that first statement – which is probably going to be about two sentences long – I’d include a clear confirmation of what has happened; which stakeholders come first, and how you’re prioritising them; what the risks are to the public, if appropriate; and what will happen next. Otherwise it doesn’t seem as if you’re proactively handling the situation.”

What happens next could be as simple as promising to issue further guidance in the next 12 hours. “But give some kind of next step – the media will then wait for that milestone, as opposed to finding others for themselves,” he says. 

4. Honesty, humility and humanity: your three-step plan for any PR crisis

For Davies, the best kind of crisis response involves honesty, humility and humanity: “Honesty: be clear and transparent with the facts. Humility: if you have done something wrong, say so.  Humanity: make it relevant to human beings, particularly if it’s an issue of safety.”

 Sorry often seems to be the hardest word in PR, largely because it entails an admission of liability. But when your organisation is clearly at fault, Davies believes in an old-fashioned apology. “If appropriate, say sorry. The lawyers don’t like it, but it always makes for a better crisis response.”

5. Don’t forget to communicate with your own people

“One thing everyone forgets in a crisis is their own colleagues,” says Davies. “Never forget internal comms and other stakeholders. Make sure your staff and colleagues know what you’re responding to, and don’t forget, say, local MPs or local charities with which you work closely.” 

Supporting your colleagues may be as simple as reminding them where they can read the internal protocol for handling a crisis. But it may also be necessary to refresh their memories about your media policies, particularly in the event of a headline-grabbing or sensitive incident, such as a disease outbreak. “In a high-profile situation, it would not be inappropriate to issue media and social media guidance, and ask colleagues to refrain from speaking to journalists or posting on this topic, to avoid causing any distress,” says Davies. 

 “Unhelpful though it can be, social media can be very useful in spotting fires early,” Davies adds. “Seeing what people are actually talking about on the ground allows you to predict what might be coming your way next.” And in a crisis situation, preparation is everything.

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