How to Handle PR During a Crisis or Controversy

How to handle PR during a crisis or controversy

How to Handle PR During a Crisis or Controversy

By Pauline Harris, for

Having complete control of a corporation, organization, or even individual’s reputation is no small responsibility. There’s a reason there is an entire profession (public relations) dedicated to this.

Good or bad, the PR firm must handle every facet of a company’s brand, an entertainer’s reputation, or a politician’s image. One misstep can mean serious damage to a company or client’s reputation. Training is key.

Even during the best of times, the job of a public relations firm can be tough- it can be hard to get your message out or to build a brand; but in no way does this compare to how difficult handling PR fiascos are.

So how should public relations be handled during an erupting crisis or a controversy? While there is no step-by-step pat answer, there are certain things that can be set in place to help deal with PR during a potentially damaging controversy.

The first thing that must be done is to implement a crisis management approach and mentality. There is a fiasco, a company’s mistake cost people money, a public personality is caught in an affair… we hear different controversies each and every day. All controversies have to be managed and handled by an effective PR strategy that will help mitigate the damage to the image of whatever entity is undergoing the crisis. The biggest thing to remember is that no matter what the issue, no matter how technical or sordid it might be, the first job of public relations is to project the image that the company, individual, or client wants to project. This means open communication, understanding, and dealing with public opinion is key to safely navigating the issue. There must be a quick reaction, a sense of humility displayed, and simple and easy to understand answers provided.

Under all circumstances, it’s most important to remain calm, cool, and collected, and to make sure that everyone involved reacts professionally.

Crisis communications word cloud

First and Foremost – Make Sure You’re Prepared

The best way to avert a crisis or to stem the tide of damage from a disaster is to always be prepared. Schools have emergency exit plans, families have disaster plans, governments have detailed emergency plans for all kinds of issues, so why wouldn’t you be prepared for a PR crisis? Being prepared is the cornerstone of effective PR.

PR exists, by design, to build and protect an image or brand, so if there is a PR strategy in place it should assuredly have emergency preparations. If you want a guaranteed way to improve your PR or you work at an agency, make sure you have a general plan so that you’re organized when the crisis occurs. It will be hectic enough as a crisis unfolds, but the PR rep has to be the voice of calm and reason, ready to face any altercation that might arise.

  • Have a contact list at the ready for any and all media members you can reach out to.
  • Be ready to start gathering facts, figures, and details right away.
  • Make sure you are enrolled in a few 24-hour PR distribution services so that you can strike back as soon as possible.
  • Have an ally list for those in the media who will do you a favor, and a list of enemies, or neutral media members who will simply waste valuable time.
  • Get your spokesperson some good practice answering tough questions as soon as possible, so they are ready to face scrutiny.

Damage Control

Effective PR can master damage control, while bad PR will only add fuel to the fire. You have your preparation, so now, in the thick of the heat, it’s time to put out the inferno.

  • Decide whether a response is even needed- some things sound so absurd they can just be brushed away. Most don’t, but a few do.
  • Contact whoever “broke” the story and tell them you want facts and an opportunity to respond.
  • Make all facts and figures for your response readily available. Post them where they are easily accessible so that any reporter fact checking can access them with ease.
  • Contact your attorney or counsel and get them involved so you know of all potential legal ramifications.
  • Start collecting all media related to your issue so you can see what people are saying and have a complete picture of what the public is seeing.
  • If you decide to counterattack or address the situation be open and honest, and avoid inflammatory attacks or statements

Stages of planning for a PR crisis

Spin Control

As Public relations is the job of protecting and building an image, perhaps the best place to look for examples would be in the realm of politics. A politician’s image and their word is all they really have. They need votes to attain an office, and that means people need to like and trust them. So what happens when calamity strikes in the political world?

Spin control 101.

Boomerang the negativity back at the attacker or “spin” the crisis so it paints you in a favorable light. Presidential administrations have entire staffs dedicated to spin control.

Companies, not just individuals, should be using spin control as well. When the Red Cross accidentally sent out an inappropriate tweet, a funny deprecating tweet that followed made the negative tweet into a positive sense of humor and may have even increased donations.

So there are the keys to overall strategy for facing any PR crisis: be prepared, manage the crisis, control the damage, and then spin what you can in your favor. It isn’t an easy process, but it can be done and has been done during many a PR catastrophe.

Any questions or thoughts? Put them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Pauline Harris

Pauline Harris

WIth over 3 decades experience, Pauline M. Harris is the Owner/Principal of SPIN, a marketing and public relations consulting firm, specializing in business acceleration through improved marketing and public relations, and with offices in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
Pauline Harris

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