I turned on the television news recently to learn that one of our top football teams may have lost an important match because of illness, the story being brought to us by a reporter stationed outside the hotel where the players enjoyed lunch prior to the game.
In the car, this was the lead story on the radio news with the story read by a reporter, again said to be outside the hotel. He confirmed that the Police had collected samples from the restaurant to pass onto the health authorities.
Guess what? The story was also the lead in the tabloid newspapers sat on my desk when I reached the office. Photographs of the hotel in question usually supported the story.
As a public relations professional, I reflected on what the hotel’s PR people are going through this morning. This is a prestigious hotel group with a well-crafted brand image of quality at the premium end of the market. Here they are, in the spotlight for all the wrong sort of reasons!
They will surely have a documented Crisis Management Plan or, in softer terms, a PR Communications Plan. But it is not only global companies who need to devise a plan in advance. Being in business, or even running a not-for-profit organisation, exposes everyone to the risk of a PR crisis.
No organisation is very far from crises and their resulting media attention. Their reputation can be washed away or seriously damaged in an instant. A crisis is any situation that threatens the integrity or reputation of your company, usually brought on by adverse or negative media attention.
These situations can be any kind of legal dispute, theft, accident, fire, flood or manmade disaster that could be attributed to your company. It can also be a situation where in the eyes of the media or general public your company did not react to one of the above situations in the appropriate manner. This definition is not all encompassing but rather is designed to give you an idea for the types of situations where you may need to follow this plan.
Crisis management is a complex subject, but here are five tips to get you started. And, start, you must.
1. Don’t wait. Many organisations only get their crisis plans underway once a disaster has struck. Instead, brainstorm possible scenarios or types of disasters that could happen, and start planning for them. In fact, I have found this to be a positive process as bringing together key executives to share ideas and examine scenarios often brings out a range of issues that they can take forward.
2. Realise that crises take a wide range of shapes. As I say, this can be anything from the hotel’s crisis to a legal dispute getting out of hand to customer dissatisfaction aired on the Internet. I even recall a weekend phone call from a Scout leader whose campsite had been washed away in storms with some children being injured; the media were on the telephone badgering her for the story! They will all require slightly different responses. Brainstorm and prepare for as many as you can imagine.
3. Develop a PR communications plan. A barrage of media attention may swamp you within minutes of the news breaking. Also, think about how you will get information out to staff, supporters & investors, and customers – yes, remember to get your side of the story out to customers as soon as you can. Internal communication is as important as communication to the general public.
A physical plan has to do with getting everyone out of the building in case of an earthquake. A communications plan involves identifying a spokesperson, developing press releases, setting up a media hotline, and finding a place where you can have a press conference.
4. Be prepared to speak to the media and to your constituents. Even if you can’t say much because your lawyer is concerned about liability, plan to say what you can as soon as you can. Be concerned, show concern, speak concern, and always tell the truth. That doesn’t mean you have to tell everything all at once, but never, never lie.
5. Provide media training for senior management. Do this before a disaster strikes. Make it a regular part of board and senior employee training. Media training needn’t cost a lot if you have someone on your board working in public relations or someone who is a member of the media. The key is to do it regularly so that new people are always trained and others don’t grow stale.
Don’t delay your crisis planning. Don’t ruin your hard-won reputation by handling difficult situations badly! The directors and PR team of that hotel this morning went to bed last evening little knowing the blast of unwelcome publicity that was facing them this morning. Hopefully, their PR Communications Plan will be a trusted aide today!
1. “Crisis in Organizations: Managing and Communicating in the Heat of Crisis,” by Laurence Barton.
2. “You’d Better Have a Hose if You Want to Put Out the Fire: The Complete Guide to Crisis and Risk Communications,” by Rene A. Henry.