How to handle a perfect PR storm
Sadly too many companies are taken unawares by a storm of bad publicity.
You know for sure that you’re dealing with a serious construction PR crisis when you are faced with complaints, a wave of social media chatter and invasive and hostile media attention. And all this usually comes before full information is available to the executive team.
At this point, you have a choice:
- You can allow others to shape perceptions of you and your actions, usually by doing nothing until the lawyers say it’s ok and all the facts are known
- Or you can attempt to control this by taking an early active role
Whichever strategy you choose, how you deal with such situations is the acid test of your PR and communications. It will have lasting impact on your reputation and even the survival of your company.
Our advice is to consider the various stages of your storm and think about how you’ll work through them:
What to do before a PR crisis hits
Research into crisis communications proves that success often comes down to two main factors: response time and preparedness.
The first 24 hours of any crisis are crucial, and in order to stay in control of a situation you need to be seen to be at the centre of the response.
A speedy, comprehensive and calm response that projects a credible, responsible and caring company can sometimes stop a potential storm in its tracks.
But any sort of delay, complacency or information vacuum can, and almost always will, lead to false reports and reputational damage.
So plan for the worst. Imagine your worst nightmare and get your crisis preparedness plan in place.
During the crisis
After many years of handling PR crises in construction, here are our top 10 tips for managing the situation as it unfolds:
- Always be honest and open, but never speculate. Stick to the facts as known at the time. It’s perfectly ok to say, “I can’t answer that question because that information is not known at the moment”. It’s definitely not ok to say “No comment”.
- Tell people what’s going on now, and what they should do. Talk about what your organisation is doing to mitigate the problem; don’t get drawn into arguments or focus on what’s already gone wrong.
- Put public, customer and employee health and safety issues at the top of your list of concerns and messages, closely followed by environment, property and money (in that order).
- Know when to say you’re sorry. The lawyers will not like this in case it construes responsibility, but you do need to agree a way to demonstrate empathy and compassion.
- Use senior staff to reassure key stakeholders. The visibility of the chief executive and other senior company spokespeople is going to be extremely important. My strongest advice is that bosses should be exposed to the harsh reality of a crisis before deciding key messages.
- Put the incident into perspective. A common strategy is for commentators, competitors and critics to take one incident and try and look for or publicise a cluster of other similar incidents. You need to be able to counter this with your own verifiable statistics and facts that prove how rare this crisis really is.
- Don’t mix your messages, for example saying one thing to the media, another to staff and another to customers. Any variation in message could prove highly embarrassing and fundamentally damaging.
- Written statements are a good tool to use for most organisations new to crisis management, but these must include relevant content (particularly covering the five W’s: who, what, where, when and why). Go easy on technical detail and jargon. And set up a speedy sign-off system. All your statements should be able to be drafted, approved for use and distributed very quickly in minutes, not hours.
- Put your statements onto your website, intranet, online PR channels etc. and distribute them to everyone who might be approached for (and is likely to) comment. Don’t just think about the words – visual messages can also be extremely helpful. Provide your own illustrations, maps, photographs and other visual materials to help communicate what has happened and what you are doing about it.
- Finally, document absolutely everything.
When the crisis has died down
When it’s all over, take time to discuss what you have learned from handling the crisis. Think about how you are going to deal with any ongoing recurrence of publicity (such as a later court judgement, health and safety investigation, inquest or public inquiry, or the anniversary of the incident).
Your post-crisis PR and marketing strategy must strike a very careful tone, both positive and upbeat but also emphasising that you are listening.
Above all, stay listening. A perfect storm will never take you unawares again.