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“We’ve Got a Crisis!”: PR’s Role in Crisis Management

Everyone’s got their own version of a crisis.

The alarm didn’t go off.

My novice-driver son got into a car accident.

I’m trending on Twitter.

PR people regularly get calls from clients to help with a crisis and they can range across the spectrum as well. Inevitably, they seek my counsel to mitigate fallout in the press, to avoid damage to their brand and to their business.

How to respond to a crisis is unique to the circumstances, but there are usually some themes I like to reinforce when helping people deal with unpleasant news.

1. It’s not as bad as it seems. A former colleague of mine used to diffuse bad news with a question: “Is anyone dead?” When the answer came, “Well, of course not,” he would interrupt: “Then everything is going to be fine.” And it’s true. Death is the ONLY true disaster. Everything else is manageable.

2. Assemble your team. Preferably, you have a core crisis team already identified, including legal and financial counsel. Judging the impact of a crisis frequently needs these two disciplines involved so trusted and calm insights are absolutely crucial. Of course, you also need to have your public relations person involved from the start. Only involve the people who are absolutely necessary to the issue. Everyone else is dead weight.

3. Work the problem. Yes, it’s no fun finding out something terrible has happened and worse when your phone starts blowing up with calls, texts and emails. But it’s worst when people start making up scenarios about what the press will write or what the people are doing on the other end of the lawsuit you just got served. You can’t control that, so don’t waste time and energy trying to. Focus on your goals and your issues. Also, some people seem to enjoy shouting that the sky is falling; keep those people OUT of the room.

4. Get it out, now. Great advice I was once given from former NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. So what if you don’t have all the answers today; tell what you’re doing right now. Fill the space you are being given in the narrative; control your part of the story. Message to your audience (customers, shareholders, students, patrons) and let them hear your story directly from you rather than read it in the newspaper. Also, few crises are a “one-day story,” so start building credibility with the reporters covering it and the audiences they are informing.

 5. Always do the right thing. The most important thing you can do in a crisis. No amount of great PR is going to make something bad go away; reporters aren’t swayed by spin (a four-letter word in my book) over substance. If you have a challenge, you need to figure out how to meet it head on. Take action. Demonstrate competency and resolve to fix a problem. Then use PR to tell that story.


Vice President, Public Relations


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