My guide to PR crisis management

Whilst it’s fresh in my mind, I thought I’d just venture to offer a little bit of advice on crisis mangement in PR.

There may well be people better placed than me to advise on managing a crisis, but I’ve done a few, including one-or-two recently, and I think I’ve got some good advice to give.

This isn’t a step-by-step guide, as in my experience you have to do this in the order that it feels right to you to do; you may only have a few moments to execute it, in which case why would you be frantically scribbling out your strategy when you should be shutting down and/or controlling your channels.

1. Control contact and take charge of your channels
The first step has to be to channel your communications through just a few people & outlets; that may be the Managing Director/Chief Executive. In football or sport it may also be the Manager and, for example, the club captain or a senior player. That also counts for Twitter, Facebook and your other social media outlets. If you have to operate a ‘no comment’ policy for a short while, then do it. Social media doesn’t have to be engaging all the time. And when you’re in full swing, you can still operate your normal business, just ensure that whoever has to know, knows what they can and can’t say. Control shouldn’t be a dirty word. Where social media is concerned, it is an environment which, quite probably for some, is a welcome chance to speak frankly, and so ‘redress’ the balance tipped in favour of the control freakery of the mythical age of ‘spin doctory’ exemplified by Alistair Campbell (more about him another time; but I’m more of an admirer than a chastiser and I will explain then), but they need to listen to professionals executing a strategy that is meant to work for the whole organisation. They can speak candidly another time.

2. Establish your strategy
Try to work out what you’re trying to say, why, how and using what tools. Don’t just strategise in your head, or scribble down a few lines; write a strategy, but remember; it’s what you use as your touchstone. A good crisis manager learns to do deliver a lot of this instinctively, and in time you will, but you should always have this up your sleeve, ready to refer to it. If you need a rough plan, try this one I use a lot.

3. Create timelines
There are useful tools out there around project planning. One such is a Gannt Chart, which is a tool used by a lot of project planners, and which helps you to break each task into its composite tasks, and by date and person responsible. Use it or something like it, again, to provide that touchstone. Try this one I picked up on a training course some time back.

4. Remain disciplined but be flexible
Don’t suddenly get complacent because you feel like you’re in control, and don’t give up just because you feel like you’re failing. There are ebbs-and-flows in any story, in any crisis, and you need to learn to recognise them. And don’t suddenly decide to take your hands off the steering wheel just because you think you’re cruising. All that aside, one of the best lessons I’ve learned over time is not to be rigid in your delivery; recognise when you can perhaps be a bit flexible – maybe, tactically, you can be a bit more open. One of the ways I’ve done it in the past is to use Twitter as a way of targeting an influencer, and on one occassion, I actually ended up on the phone to them, explaining the rather misunderstood position that we were taking. It didn’t get him to agree with my position, but he did understand it, and tweeted, to a lot of other people, also a tag which meant that more people would or could read it.

5. Talk regularly and be a human being
When you’re trying to deliver your strategy, you need to remain in contact with your spokespeople, or whoever it is that is involved in delivering it. Whether you’re sat behind the scenes, or upfront in the heat of battle, human contact is the vital component above all. Don’t just do the heavy lifting at the start and then disappear, or sit emailing your contact; at least speak to them by phone, meet them if possible. Discuss what they’ve had to do that day to, which journalists, bloggers, tweeters, whoever, have been difficult, positive, what has been stressful or difficult. In the end, each of the actors in any crisis strategy – be they the people delivering it, those defending your organisation, or the ones asking the difficult questions – are human beings, and you need to understand that. If you just act like a machine or worse still, are cold and unthinking, that damages peoples’ confidence. PR is about reputation but it’s also about relationships.

6. Monitor the external environment
Keep an eye on what’s going on out there; set up Google News Alerts, browse Twitter, look at what people are saying on Facebook. But don’t get obsessed. This is another way people get lost in any form of PR or media management, but especially in crises. A lot of this kind of work can get knocked out of its stride by obsessing about what a few people are talking about, so don’t_get_obsessed. Ok?

7. Manage it with your own flair 
What works for me or others isn’t guaranteed to work for you, so find your own groove; work out what’s comfortable for you, but, in the spirit of this post, be prepared to feel uncomfortable too; that’s normal and it’s how you’ll learn.

Thanks for reading. I’m not a repository for all knowledge about this subject by any means, so if you feel you’d like to disagree, or discuss or debate, please do – here or on Twitter. It’s partly how I learned. That and doing it.

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