PR managers are great when it comes to promoting your brand and products. However, the last person you want in the room during a crisis is your typical public relations manager. While all PR managers and PR agencies say they can manage a crisis, few can. Fewer have experience dealing with real crises at the strategic level. Unfortunately their involvement too often causes more damage than good, and ends in tears.
In major crises you need to call in experienced and seasoned crisis managers with expertise in government relations, public affairs, regulatory issues, and litigation support.
Here are some tips based on Powell Tate’s recent experience dealing with crises including death and injury cases, corporate fraud, extortion, product contamination, product liability, product recalls, litigation, and parliamentary and government inquiries.
1. Accept that you will lose some paint
Do you remember that scene in the 2009 movie Avatar when the humans are about to commence their attack on the Pandorans? A dragon gunship navigator says “We are gonna lose some paint in here.” A crisis is like that – it is like being in a war. You can’t take a tank into battle and not expect it to come out without some paint scraped off at the minimum. In a crisis your brand will take some hits, it will lose some of its shine. Rather than worry about every hit and having to respond to every allegation that is made, you need to stay focused on the main objective. You can put in place a program to repair your brand – a brand recovery strategy – for when the crisis is over. But don’t start executing during the crisis. During a crisis you need to suspend your marketing, advertising and PR, and absorb some of the hits you will get.
2. Work with the lawyers – they are not the enemy
To use another tank-war-film analogy, there’s a scene in the 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes where Big Joe says to the captured German (enemy) officer:
We’re not worried about the German army, we’ve got enough troubles of our own. To the right General Patton, to the left the British Army, to the rear our own goddamn artillery, and besides all that it’s raining. And the only good thing to say about the weather: it keeps our air corps from blowing us all to Hell because its too lousy to fly, versteh?
It is a simple message: Don’t become the enemy within. It is tough enough fighting a war against external enemies; you don’t need to also fight internal enemies. Too often some communications people become the internal enemy of an organisation, while it is in the midst of a crisis.
Usually some people behave badly in a crisis because they don’t agree with the language the lawyers are putting into statements and other documents. But they need to understand that the lawyers are on their side. Lawyers are not the enemy. Lawyers know their language can at times be, well, legalistic. But they also know this is sometimes essential to protect the interests of the company. They know that litigation or government inquiries may ensue and they have their eyes on what is coming next. That’s not to say the communications experts shouldn’t raise their concerns when they have legitimate issues with strategy, messaging or language in documents. But they also need to work with the lawyers and have sufficient understanding of the law to know when the lawyers’ approach should take precedence.
3. Correct major errors – let minor ones go through to the keeper
It is important to stay focused and only correct errors that are material to the current crisis. For example, in reporting on a product liability issue, the media may make some errors in describing your company or business or products. As these errors are not material to the product liability it may not be in your interest to try and correct them. The simple reality is that by correcting them you may be giving reporters an opportunity to refresh their stories. In the age of online communications that just keeps stories at the top of news portals and in social media conversations. Consider that it might be better to let them naturally get pushed down. It doesn’t matter that they spelled your name incorrectly or got the location of your factory wrong when they are slamming you on an issue of product liability or something similar. If I could use a cricket analogy, you need to know when to hit the ball and when to just let it go through to the wicket keeper. In making that decision you need to know that every time you swing at the ball you risk being run out, caught out or bowled out. Sometimes the safest play is to stand and watch the ball fly past you to the keeper.
4. And sometimes playing a dead bat is better than hitting a six
It is very tempting in a crisis to go on the attack. You know you didn’t do the wrong thing. You know your critics are misrepresenting facts and using the situation to undermine, even to try and destroy you, and you want to go on the attack. However, that could be very dangerous in the midst of a crisis. DSo, even if you are right that the crisis was not your fault, that someone else – maybe even the ‘victims’ in the crisis – had done something wrong, there is no upside to saying it in order to “correct the public record”. Indeed, it is more advisable to express your sympathy for the victims, explain what you are doing to address the immediate situation to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and to demonstrate that you are cooperating with the relevant authorities. At some point there will be an investigation by those authorities and you can save your technical and legal arguments for that day.
As part of this you do not have to respond to every question the media throws your way. Prepare a simple holding statement that you can send to media that call. The holding statement should satisfy their need for a response from the company without providing answers that could take you down multiple endless rabbit holes.
1. When a real crisis hits it is time to keep a level head;
2. Play it safe to contain the crisis rather than risk inflaming the situation further – You don’t have to respond to every question from every journalist;
3. Accept that your brand will take a few “hits” during the crisis – Only seek to correct major errors that are material to the crisis; and,
4. Work with the lawyers – they are on your side.
Published by Alistair Nicholas – Executive Vice President and Director of Special Projects at Powell Tate Australia. He has more than 25 years crisis management experience covering Australia, North America and Asia.