By Andrew Blum
Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner) of Saturday Night Live fame had it right when she said: "Well, Jane, it just goes to show you. It's always something … If it ain't one thing, it's another."
You can say that about PR crises. They happen anytime — anywhere. Ask Paula Deen, the Quebec freight train owner, the Obama Administration, Bloomberg News, Lance Armstrong, the oil industry, Hurricane Sandy municipal responders, along with Con Edison and Dewey & LeBoeuf.
The main lesson in any crisis: be prepared, defend and protect your firm, client or brand. Whatever you do, don’t make it worse. Make every effort to be responsive and positively defuse the situation as best you can.
Consider a couple of scenarios:
- Take Dewey, for example. Its bad news hit the blogs, social and traditional media, with blogs serving as a press release service for other reporters. Negative stories showed up almost daily, leading to a severe crisis and Dewey's eventual collapse.
- If it was your client, how would you react to the 2010 crisis of the Gulf oil spill? And how would you handle it hitting the front page of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, and staying there for weeks?
All crises are not created equal. Some PR problems are more issue than crisis. As PR industry colleague Dick Wolfe says, a crisis is always an issue, but an issue doesn’t have to become a crisis. A one- or two-day story does not necessarily rise to a major crisis, but if you keep getting hammered, it can be a recurring mini-crisis.
A crisis brings major threats. It happens unexpectedly, and you have a small amount of time to respond. Today, crisis communication requires PR on steroids to beat back the proliferation of cable television, the Internet, blogs and social media, on top of traditional media.
Think Ahead and Plan for the Worst
By the time a crisis hits, a crisis plan should already be in place. When a client’s problems permeate major media, team with the client and the client’s PR person. If the client doesn't have a PR person, recommend one. Trust me — there will be issues they need to handle. Yet even with the best internal and external agency crisis team in place, some PR problems may be insurmountable.
Take the Gulf oil spill, which PR experts believe was difficult from the start. “BP could apologize every day. They could have a situation where the CEO goes on an environmental pilgrimage and falls to his knees going up a mountain, and it wouldn’t do them any good," Western Michigan University Communications Professor Keith Michael Hearit told The New York Times. "Until the oil stopped, there was nothing that could be done to make it better, but there was plenty that could be said to make it worse.”
Three years and billions of dollars later in cleanup, TV ads, legal fees and settlements, BP's brand continued feeling impacts from the crisis. And this was despite top-notch crisis and litigation PR efforts of BP's renowned lead agency Brunswick Group.
By no means do I believe you shouldn’t try, but recognize that often a crisis has you swimming upstream like a salmon avoiding bears (the media) nearby.
Law firms are as susceptible as any company. In Dewey's case, it hired leading crisis agency Sitrick. But the firm's 2012 financial collapse happened so fast that even Sitrick's excellent work was unable to stop the avalanche of bad press in traditional and social media, making the crisis worse.
The Crisis Per Se Isn't the End; It's Just the Beginning
Remember the media is going to be in it for the long haul, and you can face months of crisis communications. And today, the media landscape is more consuming and instantaneous, leading to a longer shelf life for bad stories. (Think Google.)
It’s what the press digs up that makes it worse, probing every part of a client’s activities — business or otherwise. Competition among media is ruthless, complicating things for the PR team. A reporter at one publication may be miffed that a colleague at the outlet got something from you that he didn’t. If one outlet leads the pack, others will seek confirmation.
These days, a crisis means smartphones, tweets, retweets, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, websites, radio, print outlets, tabloids, wire services, trade press, and other national and local (and sometimes international) media.
With the deck appearing stacked, you might think all is lost as you fight like the proverbial Dutch boy holding back the floodwaters of public opinion. Yet as Toby Usnik, Christie’s international chief CSR officer and international director, says: A crisis should involve “PR, not ER.”
I agree but often you are forced into crisis triage as 80 or 100 press calls and emails per day overwhelm a PR staff. In the end, it’s about staying calm, using your preparation and crisis PR tools, and fighting for the best perception you can get to meet the challenge.
Ten Tips for Dealing with the Media in a Crisis Today
- Keep the message simple; change as needed to keep up with developments.
- Use the web and all social media channels wisely.
- Have one designated spokesperson with one consistent message.
- Hire a crisis PR agency.
- Keep up with the client's use of email and social media.
- If your client is flogged in the press daily, pick a select few outlets to give access to or hold some on or off the record briefings.
- If you promise the press something, deliver or the press will never forget.
- The local media takes big stories personally so don't forget them even as a crisis goes national.
- Try to avoid no comment.
- If you have a gripe with a reporter’s story, talk to the reporter directly.
PR consultant and media trainer Andrew Blum has directed PR and high-profile and crisis PR for law firms, PR agencies and other clients. As a PR executive, and formerly as a journalist, he has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years. He is reachable at Ablum4@aol.com.