Crisis PR, Communications and Management

Signs You Need to Call a Crisis Manager and Communicator

We’ve all seen a lot of crises in our time and thought “Wow, they should have seen that coming a mile away!” But we still wonder if it happens to us will we see the signs and do something before a crisis becomes a public one, damaging reputations and eating up a lot of your company’s time and money.

Over the last 16 years as an agency public relations consultant I’ve been tapped to handle a lot of crises because of perspective and experience. There really is no substitute for experience when it comes to a crisis manager. Experience teaches you the stuff no training program or university can.

I was fortunate (unfortunate?) to experience major crises by accident early in my PR career. I found myself in situations with clients who had been proactive, positive PR clients whose projects turned to intense reputation-damaging situations. This real-life experience is some of the best training for a crisis manager. Turning a previously positive campaign into a ground war against a reputation-damaging issue takes special skills.

Here are the signs you need to call a crisis PR manager quickly:

  1. You are making a major change in the company. Could be positive, could be negative. A move, a new facility, new leadership, putting real estate up for sale, downsizing/rightsizing, launching a new product or service that will supplant and replace a current product or service. These “reputation triggers” if not handled correctly can become a crisis. They also offer a unique opportunity to build trust and ambassadorship among your team and customers.
  2. You are making an acquisition or a merger. This is one of the toughest situations that if mismanaged will erode trust with customers and employees. Get ahead of this with a strategic communications plan for all audiences.
  3. You are filing or applying for anything public. Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law is a wide-reaching public information law. Do you understand it? PR pros are experts at navigating these issues and helping you be prepared.
  4. You are in a contentious lawsuit. Do you recognize the opposing counsel as someone who is routinely on the news or in the news? Do not wait until you see the plaintiff telling their story about you or your company on the news.
  5. There is a major legal issue facing your company or industry. Has this issue been in the news and you’re afraid someone is going to come knocking on your door to ask about it?
  6. A top employee of yours has gotten arrested and/or will get arrested for something either morally unacceptable OR has to do with the company (fraud, embezzlement, etc.). There is a little box on all police reports for a person’s employer. Most people tell the truth here. The issue can reflect poorly on your company even if the crime is not related to your business. But if the crime happened at your business, you can almost guarantee media will be at your door.
  7. You think someone on your team is leaking bad information to groups outside your company. Moreover, has anyone threatened to call the media about an incident with your company? Listen to these clues.
  8. There are widespread rumors among your staff and/or your customers. Could be small or large. Understand if these are garbled messages or if they spell real trouble.
  9. A reporter is knocking on the door or calling you right now. Do you know what to do to contain the situation and not make it worse? Having a plan helps. Having an understanding of how reporters work helps. Having a media policy helps. So does having a PR rep to help you immediately.
  10. 10. Your gut. Trust it. If you think it looks bad, it probably does. Run it by a professional – get some expert, objective, unbiased outside analysis and help.

Media Training and Coaching

Recently, I was asked to perform a media training and coaching session for a client I’d not worked for in an ongoing, proactive public relations capacity. Although this type of training can stand alone in some cases, media training and coaching is usually coupled with an annual PR campaign, special project or a special initiative like launching a new service or product, opening a new location/expanding or some other news-related trigger event.

I was able to perform the one-time media training for the individual who requested it. But here are some tips if you are considering hiring a media trainer for either a short-term project or an annual PR campaign:

  1. Have a Goal– Why are you training? Is it a crisis? Will there be an outreach campaign post-training? Or is this just an informational/familiarization effort in preparation for a future issue?

  2. Spokesperson vs. Media Trained – Understand which one you’re training. Are you trying to familiarize your entire C-suite to be prepared for media? Do you have one company or organization spokesperson in mind?

  3. Messaging – the best training happens when you’re dealing with real world issues or concerns. Does your company have messaging it should be trained to deliver? PR consultants can help develop your messaging for training if it doesn’t yet exist. This is an important step.

  4. Media Format – What kind of media training would best suit the company? Preparation for broadcast – live or taped radio or TV? Or print – newspapers, magazines and trade publications. Or are you training for a future PR effort that will cross all the styles and news outlets in your industry or market?

  5. Media Policy – Does your company or organization have a media policy? Typically policies deal with who can talk with media about what subjects and how requests are handled. Do they go through a PR or marketing department? What does the receptionist do if reporters or writers show up unannounced? Who is immediately activated in the case of crises? Making sure the entire staff understands your media policy and procedures will help avert misunderstandings or delayed media responses in both positive and challenging times. Your PR pro can help write your media policy if you don’t yet have one.

  6. Plan for Training – training and coaching takes time. Block off at least a four hour session depending on the depth of training. Your PR pro will develop a presentation for the session and facilitate that session the day of training. The best training sessions are custom to the company or situation – a PR consultant may need some time to familiarize themselves with the issues before training.

  7. Keep an Open Mind – Media training sessions are built not only to inform and coach but to give you some edge in dealing with news media. Be prepared for discussions on how to partner with the news media to deliver your messages. Check your news media biases or misconceptions at the door – the best media training sessions will help you understand how the news business works, what reporters are looking for and how you can help them. You’ll get a better understanding of how journalistic ethics and PR ethics work hand-in-hand for the best possible outcomes. It’s not about manipulating media – it’s about being open, transparent, truthful, accessible and helpful.

  8. Find the right trainer – A public relations consultant or agency are both great options. Look for a facilitator with experience across multiple industries. Find a consultant or company that will partner with you to customize your media training – there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s often beneficial to find an accredited (APR) or certified (CPRC – Florida only) PR practitioner. Some PR pros also have a background as working journalists. Often they offer an “insider” view of the news media.