Have a cunning plan…

By the time a crisis hits, it is too late to think of damage limitation. Public relation experts explain what steps can be taken in advance to turn situations to a company’s advantage. By Martin Croft

When the going gets tough, companies and their brands need good public relations. Unfortunately, too many incidents that should have been handled with kid gloves have been dealt with with iron gauntlets, resulting in a crisis turning into an absolute disaster.

There are simple steps that PR professionals can take to minimise the impact of adverse incidents. First, companies need to understand the sort of problem they might face when it comes to reputation management.

Karen Myers was recently appointed director of corporate communications at IPC Media after 21 years in the PR department of the Automobile Association. She explains that there are general principles to follow. “Overall, the important thing for a PR professional is to have a plan in place so that, when something happens, everyone knows how to behave. The written plan needs to cover every eventuality – a ‘how we do things around here if’ manual.”

Most companies that treat their PR seriously will have such a “Black Book”. But Myers is quick to warn that having a manual is not enough. “You need to make sure that the senior management have bought into that plan and that responsibilities are clearly defined for all the internal stakeholders: personnel, IT, corporate communications. There has to be a senior ‘owner’ and a senior spokesperson (not the same person necessarily) who is media trained, preferably the most senior person relevant to the crisis,” she says.

“The planning also needs to incorporate a clearly defined way of communicating internally. For example, a customer service-related crisis can impact on your inbound call centres and on the sales force who are in the front line of dealing with the backlash from other customers concerned about what they have heard or read.”

Other PR experts echo Myers’ emphasis on the seniority and relevance of the spokesperson. Rob Shimmin, who runs a consultancy, shimmin.biz, after ten years with Ogilvy PR, says: “The difference between the perception of a well-managed crisis and a disaster can be the quality of the spokespeople. Good spokespeople are ineffective if they are not supported by a strong team providing the right content.”

Michael Bland is a consultant, author, trainer and lecturer in corporate communications, with a particular focus on crisis and issues management. He has also written a book on the subject, When it Hits the Fan. Bland is suspicious of companies that rely too heavily on the Black Book, quoting General Eisenhower: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Bland says: “Massive manuals can be counter-productive, particularly if they have been developed by the PR team without consulting other departments.” He argues that any team that prepare responses to potential problems must include decision-capable people from across the company. There is no point in the PR team producing plans setting out how to act in a particular eventuality if, when they try to put those plans into effect, the finance department refuses to authorise necessary expenditure.

Handled correctly, a crisis can be turned into a major opportunity. A classic example involved Johnson & Johnson’s over-the-counter painkiller brand, Tylenol. But ignoring the rules can be seriously damaging to the brand.

Mitch Kaye is a director of PR consultancy Shine Communications. “Timing is a critical element. When a problem occurs, PR needs to take control of a situation and fill the vacuum with an appropriate response. Delay invites the public to speculate and a problem spirals out of control. PR, at its most effective, communicates control and order.”

Chris Genasi is president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and chief executive of Eloqui Public Relations. He argues that crisis management needs to start well before any crisis actually happens, and that companies should begin by making contacts with a wide range of audiences.

“The first step should be to build contacts and goodwill in advance with important stakeholders. Talk to politicians, journalists, and so on, so they know who you are. Try to anticipate what might happen – if you do that well enough, you may be able to stop it happening in the first place. And don’t rely too heavily on your black box.

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