T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, and that was certainly the case this year for several clients who called on us to help them deal with media crises during April. Fortunately, we were able to avert a full-scale, reputation-destroying result in every case. This blog is about how we did it.
First, we benefited from a trusting relationship with our clients. When bombs are flying there is no time to begin building trust – it has to already be there. We had earned it in advance by demonstrating, quite simply, that we know what we are doing and that we know things the client does not know. Every successful media placement, well-written blog entry, social media campaign or website landing page that we executed made this point.
Having the client’s trust in a media crisis allows us to move quickly – which is essential in a crisis – because we typically do not have the time to explain in detail why we are recommending a certain course of action. The client must simply trust that we were making the right calls and act on them, quickly.
Trust also applies to our relationships with journalists. Because we have proven to them that we always tell the truth and act in good faith, they are more likely to work with us during a crisis, instead of against us. That is, they won’t roll over and play dead or avoid reporting on the story, but neither are they likely to play “gotcha journalism” and come to the story with pre-conceived notions about the client’s guilt.
Second, we followed Rule One of crisis management: Get everything out there the first day. That is, we anticipated what questions we’d likely get from the media, quickly crafted appropriate responses and immediately responded to all media inquiries. The goal is not to avoid the crisis or attempt to cover it up, which will only make it much worse. The goal is to make it a one-day story by getting out all information immediately so that reporters have no legitimate reason to follow up the next day.
Third, we decided what our talking points were and stuck with them. Talking points are not an answer to every question, but they are the basis for answering every question, because they provide the overall narrative of the story. Usually no more than four to five statements, crisis talking points succinctly say what happened, what you are doing about it and, perhaps, why it happened. In answering specific questions from the media, or anyone, the goal is to link all of our answers back to one or more talking points, so that the client, rather than the media or the “other side,” has a better change of controlling the overall narrative. We want to demonstrate that the client is on top of things and is compassionate.
Fourth, we always told the truth. Telling the truth is essential in any public relations effort – from pitching a story about a new product to dealing with a product recall – but it especially important during a crisis. If you are ever caught in a lie or a cover-up, then everything else you say will be dismissed, or discounted at the least.
Fifth, we gave the crisis our total attention. This is not something you can do part time. It has to be all you do, at least for the first day. This is one clear advantage our retainer clients have. They know that if the stuff hits the fan, that we’ll be there with them, usually within the hour, and stick with them – crafting responses, fielding media calls, collecting data, visit job sites… whatever it takes – until the situation is resolved.