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Crisis 101: top tips for dealing with a PR emergency

Most businesses will find themselves dealing with a difficult public relations event at some point and some may experience a full-blown crisis, such as data theft, cyber-crime or internal malpractice coming to light. In our digital age, news goes viral almost instantaneously, meaning that the implementation of a swift and effective crisis management strategy is essential. The wrong approach can irreversibly damage your brand and its relationship with clients and business partners.

One example of a PR disaster is the one which Oxfam currently finds itself experiencing. PR Week says that, “As far as communications crises go, the latest Oxfam scandal has it all: public and media outcry, criticism from corporate partners, and serious questions from parliament and regulators.” Senior figures at the charity paid local prostitutes while on business in Haiti in 2011, which was reported on by The Times. The organisation has been heavily criticised because although it investigated the events at the time, it didn’t disclose them to a number of stakeholders and regulators.

So, in light of current events, what lessons can be learned about how to deal with a PR crisis?

  1. Act immediately. As soon as you are aware that you have a problem, start the process of dealing with it, rather than trying to hide it yourself. As Oxfam’s crisis shows, sometimes the short-term pain of coming clean is preferable to compounding that with additional allegations of a cover up down the line.
  2. Involve the people that need to know as soon as possible so that nobody is first made aware of the matter by a reporter. Your communication professionals should be part of those in the loop.
  3. Get experts- usually your PR team- to handle internal and external communications. They will know how to word things in a way which doesn’t fuel the fire.
  4. Issue a simple holding statement which reassures your stakeholders that you are aware of the situation and are assessing it. This will give you time to investigate further and prepare a more detailed statement.
  5. Decide who will be your point of contact for all related telephone calls and other communication and instruct staff to direct enquiries to them. This will stop unprepared employees from being put on the spot.
  6. Instruct all personnel not to give off-the cuff interviews or speak to anyone from the media without prior agreement. Ensure that only approved comment is released to the media. Those who do speak to the media need to be fully briefed on what to say and what to steer clear of. Mark Goldring, Chief Executive of Oxfam, had to apologise for comments that caused further controversy, saying he had made them while ‘under stress.’
  7. Take responsibility when you need to. Hold your hands up and apologise rather than make excuses and, if you need to make a change to the way that you operate, make it clear how you plan to do so.
  8. Monitor social media closely. It is much harder to manage than the press and broadcast media because all kinds of people can pile on with little regard for the facts. Make sure you know what is circulating so that you can respond when necessary with approved key messages. Similarly, ensure your search engine history doesn’t throw up comments which are at odds with your current position.

A PR crisis can happen out of the blue so the best strategy is to have a management plan already in place so that you know exactly how to react should you ever find yourself in a difficult situation.

For more advice from the BlueSky PR team, see our other blogs here.

Contact us and find out how we can help you to manage your agency’s reputation.

Author: Helen Edmundson


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