In Good Times and In Bad

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, there has been no shortage of negative storylines for businesses, schools, public figures, and other organizations. This has me thinking of principles of crisis communications in general.

Every organization or public figure can count on having to address a crisis communications situation at some point–that is a circumstance that has the potential to impact your brand in a negative way. Admitting this and planning beforehand is the first step in managing these circumstances. The following are some tips to navigate the perilous waters of a PR crisis.

Think about the crisis from the perspective of each of your key constituents: current and prospective customers, employees, board members, neighbors, outside groups, etc… Make a complete list of these constituent groups, so that when a crisis occurs, you can think clearly about how it lands among those groups.

This can help you to select the communications vehicles you will use to address the crisis, as not all groups consume information in the same way. Ask yourself what information they will want and provide the answers; if possible, create a web page or some other device with comprehensive information about the crisis. Draft specific messaging for your key constituents and send it directly to them.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are acknowledging their customers’ concerns and are sending out detailed messages indicating the measures they are taking to protect them. As noted, they also have placed this information in highly visible locations on their websites.

Some crises occur in the first place because an organization did not think about how a particular action would play for all groups and then finds itself responding to backlash from an audience it had not considered. In the era of social media, these reactions can quickly escalate. Ask yourself the hard questions so you are ready when those reactions occur, or reach out to those groups before going public with the action.

When bad news lands at your doorstep and the media come calling, don’t waste time on the illusion that you can simply wait for it to blow over. This can be tempting, especially with the ever-shrinking news cycle. To begin with, not responding to media requests takes no skill; it is also horribly ineffective. Even after the media stop calling, you still have your constituents to contend with.

Our job as public relations professionals is not to make a story go away. Assuming we have a reason for everything we do, our job is to make sure our point of view is out there on equal footing with the criticism that is being leveled at us.

“We (cut that program/closed that facility/cancelled that event) for the following reasons. Here are the numbers to support our decision. Our community is important to us, and here is what we are doing instead.”

Don’t surrender your side of the narrative.

Finally, if you did do something inappropriate, running from the story only prolongs the agony. Explain that you made a mistake, along with how that mistake occurred. Then, talk about how you are going to keep that from happening again. Suppose you cheated on your spouse. It’s bad either way, but is it worse for your spouse to find out from you or from a mutual friend?

This, of course, is a mere surface-level discussion of crisis communications. Here are the key take-aways:

  • Behave as if crises are inevitable and plan for them ahead of time.
  • Look at your activities from multiple perspectives and plan for all possible reactions.
  • Don’t run from a negative story; get your point of view out there.
  • If you do mess up, own it and tell how you are going to keep it from repeating.

I hope you find this helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or thoughts about any of this.

Published by Chris Duggan

I am a seasoned communications professional, father, runner, and old-timey baseball player.

One thought on “In Good Times and In Bad

  1. This is so logically stated. It brings to mind how someone lost my business because he asked me to come back after reopening without addressing any safety measures. However, I also realize how unprepared I was for a crisis like this, and how I had to scramble to catch up with technology. Thanks for the reminder to look ahead and prepare better for the future inevitable changes!


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