Sooner or later, every public relations practitioner will have to deal with a scenario they wish would just go away. But navigating the waters of a potentially disastrous situation requires more than wishful thinking. Responding to bad news effectively can mean the difference between success and failure.
It is bound to happen eventually. One day everything will be going great and, without warning, something will happen or news will break that redefines the term crisis management. While it is often said that any publicity is good publicity, anyone who has ever had to explain a potentially damaging situation would be quick to disagree.
Reacting to bad news begins with remaining calm and assessing the situation. Whether the public relations nightmare involves scandalous information about a candidate or elected official you are working for or charges of embezzlement in your company, addressing the situation involves learning all the details and deciding what information you want to release and when. Like sharks in the water, the media will be calling once they have detected blood. Handling the media successfully will mean the difference to whether you make it to shore alive as a public relations practitioner.
Remembering the Boy Scout’s motto of “Be Prepared” will go a long way in handling crisis management. In most organizations, it is usually understood that the public relations person is the contact for media inquiries. Stressing this during a public relations crisis is an absolute in order to assure accurate information is provided and, more importantly, that information is not distributed which is not intended for release to the public. Being forthcoming with the media is a must. But there may be details that need to be withheld regardless, as in situations where the police do not release information about a crime because doing so may hinder an investigation.
It also does not hurt to be ready if you know potentially harmful information may come out. I once worked for a mayoral candidate who was not particularly media savvy and had once been accused of assault. Although he was exonerated, we knew the news could be a disaster if the media found out about the charge and he faced the cameras unprepared.
Sure enough, someone (mostly likely one of his opponent’s supporters) did their homework on his background, uncovered the information, and leaked it to the media. Knowing that scenario was inevitable, we had had already drafted a statement explaining the situation which myself, the candidate, and campaign manager kept with us at all times. The purpose of this was to make sure what we said to the media was already prepared rather than the prospect of our candidate going before reporters without time to think in advance how he would explain the situation.
Making sure you are on the ball also keeps you from saying the two words the media detests: “No comment.” If you can’t provide information, tell them and explain why (which is different from saying “no comment”). If they ask for information you have previously provided, remind them in a firm but polite manner. Stonewalling the media can lead to even bigger headaches. And you’re really in trouble if they catch you lying.
In situations where dealing with a crisis spans an extended period, daily meetings are also important. Setting a specific time each day to discuss the situation is a must, and it may be beneficial to meet more than once each day.
As with most situations, whether professional or personal, the reality is often not as bad as the fear. Dealing with a bad situation is not a pleasant experience, but being prepared and honest can help you manage it successfully.
Focusing on the Issues – Marketing Message
Successful public relations professionals know they have to stay focused on the issues. This includes both familiarizing themselves with their organization and knowing what is happening in the world around them.
Just as a car salesman cannot succeed if he hasn’t familiarized himself with his product, a public relations professional is also certain to fail if they are not knowledgeable about the organization or product they are promoting.
But, taking our automobile analogy a step further, a car salesman also has to know how his vehicles stacks up against the competition. If not, he cannot be competitive and use leverage in convincing buyers they want to purchase his vehicles. For the public relations practitioner this involves also knowing how their message is relevant to what is happening in the community.
Let’s look first at the focus of your organization. It goes without saying that it is your job to be an expert on your organization. From keeping up with biographies of key individuals and important dates to knowing how many customers you serve, and a host of other details, it is your responsibility to be the person with all the answers.
But it is not enough to only be an expert on your organization. Along with knowing about your organization or product, there also has be an understanding of the message you want to deliver. In short, what are you all about? Grasping an understanding of this comes both with asking that question of your prospective employers when you are interviewed for your position, redefining what your organization is about (one of your main responsibilities after you are hired), and constantly re-valuating that message.
A car salesman who couldn’t immediately tell you what type automobile he sells is not likely to leave a strong impression on you. The same holds true for a public relations professional who is unsure about what his organization stands for or the relevancy of a product he is promoting. Let’s take a look at four scenarios in which there is a need for public relations, along with where the focus has to be addressed successfully:
- Spokesperson for a political candidate or elected official. What are the factors that have defined your boss’ beliefs? Where does he stand on the issues? What are the main issues that set him apart from his opponents?
- Public Relations Manager for a product. What is unique about this product? Who is the target audience?
- Spokesperson for a public utility. What services do you provide? How are you attempting to meet customers’ needs? How do your rates compare with similar utilities nationwide?
- Communications Director for a Public Policy Organization. Is your organization conservative or liberal? What is the position of your organization on certain issues? What areas has your organization addressed in past?
The next step in focusing on the issues involves knowing what is happening around you. Accomplishing this means keeping up with the latest news. Doing so allows you to be ready when issues arise that are relevant to your organization. It is also important in assuring you are not caught off guard if the media contacts you about breaking news.
It also helps to keep up with what other public relations practitioners are doing, both locally through affiliations with professional organizations, and nationally through attending seminars and conferences. Sharing information helps public relations professionals with knowing how to strategize on addressing issues.