Being a public relations professional isn’t easy. At the best of times, you’re called upon to be the face and voice of your company, delivering messages to media members and employees alike. However, in times of crisis, from workplace accidents to accusations of impropriety, negligence, or malfeasance, it falls to you to face the public and state your company’s position.
Here are some guidelines for PR pros who suddenly find themselves in crisis management mode:
Project authority and confidence
Let’s start with some of the basics of presentation and public speaking. Whether you’re laying out a business plan for the next quarter, trying to explain why potential clients should buy solar panels, or explaining a company’s response strategy to a PR nightmare, you must practice the essential skills of addressing a group. Stand tall, speak clearly, remain calm, and make eye contact with the people asking questions, and the others in attendance. You must project authority confidently, so keep this in mind: as the designated PR representative for your organization, you are the foremost authority on the PR strategy you’re explaining to your audience.
Develop talking points with stakeholders
Taking a step back from speaking basics, let’s look at the planning process to address a crisiswith the media and public. In a bad situation, time is not on your side, so you must meet with key decision makers as soon as possible to plan your response. While you may be the most direct spokesperson for the company, the CEO, CFO, and other members of the executive team and employees may be asked about the situation at hand by journalists. Coordinate your response. Rank-and-file employees can be instructed to say that they’ve been told not to comment, and that questions should be directed to the organization’s PR manager. The higher-ups need to stay consistently on message, using the same terms and offering the same viewpoint of what happened, and what will happen next.
Be accurate and honest
Hopefully, you learned that lies will come back to haunt you when you were very young. This is just as true (if not more so) in PR than it is in a preschool playground. Yes, you have an angle. Yes, perhaps you are trying to spin the facts to the narrative of your talking points to paint your business in the best light under the circumstances. But there is always a clear line of differentiation between this approach and presenting inaccurate facts, figures, or details of circumstances that didn’t happen. Lying during a crisis is a very short-sighted solution that can cause long-term problems once the lie is discovered. Just don’t do it.
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”
To that end, remember that it’s acceptable not to have answers to every conceivable crisis-related question that comes your way. It’s also far better to simply say “I don’t have that information available right now, but I’ll be happy to get it to you as soon as I do,” than to make something up or deflect. Spokespeople are good at thinking on their feet by their nature but resist the urge to create answers to questions you can’t address.
Recruit and rely on experts
Finally, let’s go back to the response-planning stage of crisis management. Under certain circumstances, it may be a very good idea to have an expert in an appropriate field address the media at a news conference or provide a quote for a news release. For example, if the crisis at hand is a workplace accident due to an explosion or electrical issue, perhaps an expert on the piece of equipment that exploded, or a forensics or fire expert could be enlisted. They can speak more authoritatively than you can on technical questions. Questioners are also more likely to cut them slack in news conferences, knowing that they don’t bare responsibility for the issue, and are there to help.
No PR professional ever wants to be on the wrong end of a crisis, but these guidelines can help you emerge with your reputation, and hopefully the reputation of your organization, intact.