Crises are a reality in today’s world and they must be anticipated. And, while some crises can certainly be horrific, every crisis can be managed. From a Public Relations (PR) perspective, I define “crisis” as “any event or circumstance that negatively impacts an organization’s or individual’s reputation, credibility, or brand.”
As a PR practitioner, your role in a crisis will be multi-pronged and critical. One of your primary concerns will be providing expert counsel to the CEO with regard to the organization’s public response. You will need to consider the appropriateness of the information to be shared during and immediately after the crisis. If you share too little, you may raise suspicions; divulge too much and you could create serious liability for the organization.
I recommend following these 3 rules of crisis communication:
- Plan Ahead.
Create a detailed contingency/scenario plan that outlines every conceivable crisis and appropriate response. Contingency plans are time-consuming and painstaking, which is why many organizations don’t create them. However, when faced with a crisis, these plans actually save critical time and resources. It’s smart business to have an action plan on hand that can be quickly implemented by every member of the executive, communications, and operations teams in the event of a crisis.
- Speed Is Key.
It’s imperative to acknowledge crisis situations immediately. You may not have all of the details for days, or even weeks, but a prompt announcement to the media and your key publics will (a) minimize speculation and rumor and (b) let audiences know you are in control.
- Be Responsibly Transparent.
We’re all familiar with the Enron, AIG, BP, and VW debacles; we’ve seen, time and again, how subterfuge and lies destroy organizations. These cases present powerful lessons in PR: Be up front. Take responsibility. Tell the truth. Never engage in cover-up, deceit, or unethical behavior of any kind. Remember that bad behavior will always find its way to the headlines – eventually.
Again, what you choose to share is critical, but it must always be the truth. You should never assume, make blanket statements, or point the finger of blame. And, while truth-telling is mandatory, you do not have to publicly assume responsibility for a crisis if there is question about culpability.
And finally, it is never acceptable to say, “No comment.” This response conveys guilt, hubris, fear, and a shirking of one’s responsibility. I’ve found that there’s no better way to stimulate the ire of the media and an organization’s key publics than to say, “No comment.”
Public relations practitioners serve as the “ethical compass” of the organization. This means that their own standards of ethics, quality, accountability, integrity, and professionalism must be beyond reproach. In times of crisis, PR practitioners often develop and spearhead the organization’s response, which can include speechwriting for the CEO, managing news conferences, preparing media responses, reassuring internal and external audiences, and consulting with the executive team and board of directors. For these reasons, today’s PR professionals must develop superior leadership skills. In a crisis, everyone will be looking to the PR executive for advice, direction, and expert guidance.
If you want to develop and expand your crisis communication skills, you will enjoy COM 60311, Seminar in Crisis Communication. The course provides a comprehensive examination of crisis communication theory, application, and strategic planning approaches, along with a number of excellent case studies. I look forward to seeing you in COM 60311.
Debra Davenport, PhD is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.
*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.