Guest post from George Dearsley of Avante Media: Crisis PR why it matters – prepare now

crisis PR

George Dearsley, an experienced broadcast journalist takes us through his views on successfully planning for a crisis PR scenario.  He shows how crisis PR planning can be of considerable value.  The difference between survival for a business can be getting its crisis PR right:

The purpose of crisis PR / communications is to help your organisation control and manage the flow of information to the public via the media when it faces a major incident.

The crisis could be anything that threatens or harms people, disrupts business, damages reutation or affects share value.

No one enjoys being the focus of media attention when something has gone wrong. But it is the way senior executives and managers handle such events, which separates excellent organisations from poor ones.

Every organisation needs to think the unthinkable, now – before it happens.

So, devise a major incident plan, choose a team with people who are confident and telegenic, and role-play crisis scenarios today.

What’s the worst possible crisis that could hit your business?

Every week some organisation or business faces a situation, which could threaten its very existence, for example, the global engineering firm Jarvis facing legal action and further damage to its reputation following the Potters Bar rail crash in May 2002 in which seven people died. It finally admitted liability only in April 2004.

But in this era of 24 hour news the crisis need not be of that magnitude to bring print and broadcast journalists to your doorstep.

A fire, a faulty batch on your production line, an industrial dispute, a threat (real or bogus) to tamper with your product … suddenly you are in the media spotlight, and it is not a pleasant experience.

While the media is busy pursuing the story to sell papers or boost TV or radio ratings there may be activists or pressure groups looking to take advantage of your misfortune, and they tend to be more media savvy.

The Media is not your Enemy

Far from it, reporters provide the conduit through which your message can reach all of your stakeholders.

Treat them fairly but manage your messages.

And never say “No comment”. This translates “We are guilty and we have something to hide”.

If you cut off information journalists will go elsewhere for it, to disaffected ex-employees, competitors, angry neighbours and others. They will be issuing the memorable phrases and quotes and the story will be out of your control.

The way you communicate will have an effect on employees and stakeholders. Your employees are your ambassadors in a crisis.

Consider the Toyota Prius product recall PR disaster. The embattled Japanese car maker recalled more than 400,000 hybrid vehicles, following problems with 8.1 million others with regular combustion- engines.

Complaints centred on the braking system.

In addition to the immediate cost – somewhere between $50 million

and $220 million, according to analysts’ estimates the affect on the company’s longer-term price is more worrying.

The initial recall was bad enough. That put a large dent in the firm’s reputation

for producing quality products. It also erased about a fifth of the value of

Toyota’s shares, or US $34 billion.

But the leadership of the company was invisible and when interviews were given the utterances were complicated and full of business-speak.

Three errors to avoid

The single biggest mistake is to lie to the media

The chairman of Bradford City Football Club, which suffered a 56-death fire in 1985, said the fire was a “tragic accident” and “fate.” In fact months earlier he had recognised the stand, which burned down, was a fire risk and had tried to secure a grant to rebuild it.

The second biggest error is to put your head in the sand and hope that no one learns about your bad news.  In other words: do nothing.

The third biggest mistake is only to start to work on a potential crisis situation after it has become public

Before the news breaks, you still have some proactive options available:

  • Test key messages
  • Don’t make unrehearsed remarks to the media
  • Don’t assume that because your company has a big name or reputation you will be saved. People will trust you. They won’t
  • Don’t treat the media like the enemy
  • Don’t be reactive instead of proactive. If you are not in control of the story someone else is. Keep ahead of the game. If you initial PR effort simply leads to more rumour and speculation you have not been effective enough
  • Use simple language. Business jargon and arcane acronyms are not simply a turn-off, they create a barrier to your target audience.
  • Don’t assume the truth will out and you will triumph over adversity
  • Perception is as damaging as reality – deal with it
  • Show empathy…like Richard Branson did when one of his Pendolino trains came off the rails in Cumbria
  • Don’t just issue a written statement. We live in a tele-visual age and people want to see and hear what a spokesperson is saying
  • Don’t over-react and think the story will mean the ruination of your company. Perrier recovered
  • And finally, if incredibly lightning strikes twice don’t just do the same thing all over again and make the same mistakes
  • Learn from the previous media interaction and put right what went wrong before

George Dearsley of Avante Media has worked with HP, The NHS, VW and Shell to name a few.  If you want to talk to George about crisis PR please click on the link or contact Artisan to be passed through.