When I was growing up I had no idea I would be a fireman (of sorts) one day. As a mater of fact, I don’t know anyone working in PR who knew they would be regularly putting out fires when they entered the field. Today I can say I’m a veteran: I am a PR pro, and I put out fires regularly using time-tested processes and media monitoring tools. Truth is, a large portion of the work PR pros do involves PR crisis management. Here’s a secret: most of us enjoy the challenge and the rush of crisis communications, once we discover a way to manage the process.
Of course, you don’t ever want to be in a crisis, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds. Over the years I have come up with a 10-step process that makes a PR crisis manageable.
Marc’s 10 Step PR Crisis Management Playbook
Step 1: Take a deep breath. When a PR crisis comes about the first thing you need to do is: nothing. Stop, close your eyes, and take five slow deep breaths. Why? You need to be calm; your team is depending on you, and if you’re calm you will be better able to control the situation by keeping everyone else on the team calm. We make better decisions when we are calm and in control than we do when we are panicked. Depending on how things go, you may need to repeat this step a few times.
Step 2: Circle the wagons. Take a few minutes to get in touch with all customer facing employees (other PR team members, the social media team, customer service, etc.). Brief them on what happened, the steps you will follow to react to the issue, initial instructions on how/if they should communicate externally, expected timeline for reaction, and how they can help. I suggest asking each of these folks to begin tracking the PR crisis on their individual channels using the media monitoring tools at their disposal (more on that later) and keep you informed of any and all developments.
Step 3: Investigate what happened. Now that you’re calm and everyone’s informed (which will drastically reduce your inbox submissions from your colleagues), you need to get the full story. Use your connections in the organization to determine exactly what happened. You need to know the entire story from an internal perspective, and how your customers perceive the incident externally. This can be the most time consuming step, but also the most important: you should not react to a PR crisis if you don’t know exactly what happened and why it happened.
Step 4: Understand business impact. Is this PR crisis having an immediate impact on business? Will it have a future impact on the business? Before you react, it’s important to know how your decisions will impact the business, revenue and your brand reputation. This step will be very important as you begin to make decisions on messaging and your overall corporate stance on the crisis.
Step 5: LISTEN UP! Use your PR and social media monitoring tools to take the pulse on the reaction of the media and your community. This step will tell you is if the crisis has made it to the attention of your customers or media yet. From there your goal is to gauge the significance of the PR crisis: just how big is this issue? Are there hundreds of people talking about this incident, or only a few? What is the overall sentiment? Are people supporting you? Is the media reacting? Have any stories been published?
Step 6: Decide on corporate position and messaging. Armed with the full story, an understanding of the business impact, and a complete picture of the reaction so far, you will have a clear idea of the position your company should take. From there you can write up a quick messaging platform and get buy in from your executive team. I’d expect a bit of back and forth with key decision makers, but I can assure you that your research and preparations will be appreciated and make this process smooth.
Step 7: Make decisions on channels of distribution. Based on your corporate positioning and overall messaging you need to determine the channel/s that best deliver them to your audience. These days there are many channels to consider: you can post on your corporate blog, through social media, in a press release, directly to the media, or a combination. When making this decision, keep in mind the basic differences in each channel. Social media a fantastic choice if you are prepared for a dialogue and accept the fact that it will be hard to control your message. A Press release or a blog post are both great options if you want to broadcast and control the conversations around your message. Every situation will be different, and you’ll need to use the info you’ve gathered so far to decide on the best distribution.
Step 8: Get the word out. You’ve done your homework, gotten the buy-in on messaging, and have decided on distribution channel. It’s now time to get your message out to the channels you’ve chosen.
Step 9: Monitor reaction and react as needed. You’re not done yet! With your message out in the world you need to circle back with your public facing teams and monitor. Is your PR crisis still a crisis? What happens next will ultimately depend on the reaction of the media, your community on social media, etc. As you monitor, keep in mind that it can take a few days for a fire to die down. Sometime you need to be patient and give it the time it needs, other times you may need to step in and offer additional statements or interviews. There are no hard and fast rules and you’ll need to make the call in real time.
Step 10: Learn from the process. No one wants to see a PR crisis pop up, but I promise you one thing: no matter how things go, you will learn something valuable. Everything you learn will help your company understand how to avoid future crisis and will help you to efficiently managing your next crisis. Take what you’ve learned and apply the next time you have a fire to extinguish.
Optional Step 11—Unwind. I usually like to include a step 11, because just like a volume dial on a guitar amp, 11 tips are better than 10. My step 11 is to have a beer or glass of wine and wind down. You should choose your own form of relaxation, perhaps a jog or a massage? I try very hard to not make this step 1, no matter how tempting it might be.
The PR crisis steps can be complicated, especially when you take into account that you need to move very quickly in a crisis. Always aim to get through step 10 in hours, not days – faster if possible. Have you tried a similar process? What has worked, or not worked for you?
So I’m not a real fireman, but I like to tell my kids that if I worked in a firehouse I’d be the chief. They still don’t let me wear a fire hat in public, but they are coming around. And my local fire station won’t let me drive the fire truck – for some reason they reject my claims that I’m an extension of their team and have asked me to stop dropping by… oh, well, at least the Dalmatian likes me. I guess I’ll stick to PR and leave the real fires to the experts.