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How to keep your head in a PR crisis

Careful preparation and a mild manner will help to safeguard your reputation.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 06 Oct 2015

From Volkswagen’s emissions scandal to David Cameron’s alleged university misadventures, PR crises are never far from the headlines. But you don’t have to be a multinational corporation or a prime minister to be hit by a scandal.

From industrial accidents to product recalls, there are plenty of things that can go wrong for small businesses. And how you deal with them can make all the difference to your company's reputation and future performance.

Don’t be caught by surprise

Responding to a crisis is easier if you know it could happen ahead of time. ‘It takes an enormous amount of discipline to think about the potential downsides of what it is that you might be doing,’ says Tim Johnson COO of crisis management consultancy Regester Larkin. But, ‘there simply isn’t a business that doesn’t have risks to manage or mitigate.’

‘Sit around for a couple of hours and try to go through everything that could possibly go wrong,’ adds Ruth Shearn, managing director of Manchester-based RMS PR. How can you minimise the chances of a scandal, and what will you do if they do occur?

It’s also worth putting together a general crisis plan. This will set out how your organisation will react if the proverbial hits the fan, and who will be in the crisis team charged with clearing it up.

‘You will need a PR person, you’re probably going to need a lawyer, you’re going to need technical expert of some kind,’ says Adrian Beeby, a director at comms consultancy FWD. ‘Sometimes you’re going to need a HR expert. And somebody to chair that group and help them make decision.’

Hold your horses

When a crisis breaks, it’s important that you don’t jump the gun, says Johnson. ‘No matter how much the desire to just do something kicks in, it must be resisted. You need to get a grip on the situation.’

The moment things kick off, 'the first thing you need to do is get on the phone and find out is it true, is it really happening, what’s the scope of it, what information can you get,’ says Beeby. ‘You’ve got to build as full a picture as quickly as you can about this thing.’ Then pool the information, sit down with your crisis team, and figure out what to do next.

Dealing with journalists

The media loves a scandal, and if your crisis is juicy enough then it’s likely you will start getting calls from journalists – even if it’s just the trade press or the local paper. Make sure your staff know who to direct press enquiries to, and that they shouldn’t speak to journalists unless you have asked them to.

Faced with a crisis to deal with, it might be tempting to ignore the media, but that might be unwise. ‘If you stonewall, there will be plenty of people who won’t who will be willing to tell the media what’s really going on,’ says Beeby. ‘What happens is, you lose control because you’re not talking.’

Be honest

You might not want to throw open the doors and live tweet every sordid detail, but you also don’t want to look like you’re withholding important information. ‘Don’t lie, says Beeby. ‘Never, ever lie. Even if you think you can get away with it, somebody will know the truth and somebody will ring up and tell the world you are lying. You need to play this absolutely straight.'

Appeasing the Twitterati

Twitter, Facebook and their fellow social media platforms have ‘fundamentally changed’ crisis management, says Beeby. ‘The speed at which a story can break is much faster.’ Consider the ‘Twitterstorm’ that recently erupted in response to Protein World’s ‘Are you beach body ready?’ ads on the London Underground.

Responding to social media complaints requires a cool head – even if you’re not in the wrong. ‘Sometimes you have to be able to swallow hard and let some things lie,’ says Shearn. ‘Don’t enter a public spat, and take it offline if you can.’ Ask the complainer to get in touch with you by phone or email.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

A lot of Brits are hardwired to say ‘sorry’ at every opportunity, but your lawyer might advise against doing so during a scandal to avoid admitting guilt, says Beeby. But businesses need to be seen to be empathetic. ‘Never defend the indefensible,’ he says. ‘If you’re in the wrong, you’re going to have to admit you’re in the wrong at some point.’

‘You can apologise for somebody being distressed, you can apologise for a situation... without making an admission of culpability,’ adds Shearn.

Crises can make or break a company's reputation. A solid plan, a cool head and a humane heart will minimise the damage.

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