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An important media-response aspect during a PR crisis is underused: Common sense

by | Oct 10, 2022 | Analysis, Public Relations

Too often a very important aspect of responding to the media during a PR crisis is underused—common sense. This article lists some of the common-sense tactics that I have used when responding to the media during crises. They have always worked for me.

If there is one important PR lesson learned from the disaster-rich crops of recent media crises, it is that the aged formula of confronting a media crisis often does clients a disservice. Each crisis has to be approached differently, even if it means delaying a response for a day or three, until approaches that make sense for the situation are formulated. Until they are, a general statement should suffice. Something like, “We are reviewing the facts and will answer media questions after all the details are in,” or, in legal situations, “We have been instructed by our attorneys not to answer any questions.” (But never “no comment.”) That might not make the media happy, but agencies’ commitments are to clients, not the media that loves “gotcha” journalism.

Responding too quickly after a crisis, (the old-fashioned way still in vogue with many crisis specialists), instead of gathering and analyzing all the facts and consulting with corporate lawyers before going public, can do considerable harm to clients. Too-quick statements denying the severity of a crisis results in loss of credibility. Conversely, waiting too long and trying to conceal negative information, a common tactic, before announcing a product recall, can also damage a company’s reputation.

PR firms and their crisis specialists only have to read the papers and watch TV to see how crisis coverage has changed

Sensationalism, panel discussions and repetition of charges flourish. The transformation from reporting it “straight” to “exclamation!!!” reporting actually occurred years ago with the advent of the 24/7 cable channels and talk radio. But too often the PR reactions were from tired playbooks, not responses that kept up with the changing media. That’s because crises plans are often on the back burner until one occurs and not continually updated (or so it seems).

PR firms push media training on their clients. But media training is a poor substitute for crisis preparation. Unlike planned newspaper and electronic interviews, there is no advance notice of a media crisis. Thus, it’s difficult to prep clients. It makes more sense to conduct a crisis media training session immediately after one occurs and the facts are in, and the “we’ll get back to you as soon as we gather facts” statements are issued. But in my experience too many media training sessions were taken from the one-size-fits-all agency crisis playbook, and not tailored to specific client needs. Only the names of the company, not the facts, were changed during the sessions.

Also, it’s a plus for crisis teams to have a person on the unit with hard-news reporting/editing experience, both to tell company executives what to expect when the crisis first occurs and then to evaluate how the media may react to what is proposed.

During and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller (where I traveled internationally as a media consultant to Korean and Australian government and Olympic officials and played key roles on a variety of significant national and international sports and nonsports accounts, in addition to working on domestic political accounts, including presidential campaigns), I always believed that protecting a client from media controversy was more important than the “big hit.” Thus, for all clients, I always practiced “precautionary PR”—meaning pre-crisis prevention—when planning or implementing an agenda. That means becoming familiar with the history of a client so an account team can be prepared if an old crisis situation surfaces, as recently occurred on October 2, when the New York Times published a lengthy article titled “How McKinsey Got Into the Business of Addiction.” But unforeseen happenings occur.  When crisis situations did arise, I used out-of-the-box strategy and tailored the responses to each situation, fortunately limiting the media coverage.

Common sense and knowledge of which media will give your client a fair shot at telling its story may temporarily assuage the bad coverage, but facts are facts and in most cases no strategy can make negative reporting go away until the crisis runs its natural course.

Bottom lines:

  • The traditional PR crisis management playbook with musty, unoriginal and boilerplate ideas should no longer be pulled off the shelve and used; it should be amended to fit a specific client crisis. The same is true for media training.
  • When public safety is involved, underplaying the severity of a crisis or attempting to hide the facts results in media skepticism when statements from companies are issued.
  • Avoid adding fuel to a crisis by saying others exaggerated its extent only results in a “he said, she said” situation with additional negative media coverage.
  • Respond to a crisis but don’t rush to make a statement—be cautious of your assertions and make certain they are factual; err on the side of caution.
  • Getting out in front of a crisis does not assure it will shorten media interest and not be covered extensively. In fact, I always advised against do so. In most cases it results in negative follow-up stories.
  • Holding more than an initial press conference during a crisis situation is rarely a good idea.  Every story that emerges from the conference will revisit the situation that caused the crisis, often overshadowing new positive information.
  • After an initial statement, it is best to let update announcements be posted on Websites until all the facts are in.
  • Importantly, don’t think you or your crises team can control the media.
  • Always be honest with the media.
  • Don’t fall for the media game of, “I need a statement immediately.”
  • Attempted cover-up of a crisis only worsens the media coverage.
  • If an account is well-staffed, the account supervisors, who should know all aspects of the client, should primarily be calling the shots during media responses. Account supervisors should always maintain control of the account and never relinquish it to outside crises specialists but should usually follow the advice of the crises specialist in tactics that account supervisors have no expertise in. But the account teams should always have the final say. They have to live with the client long after the crises specialists have left the scene.
  • A crisis is like Old Man River. It just keeps rolling along. The crisis and account team must never assume “a job well done” just because the media suspended reporting the crisis as a daily news story. Government hearings, feature stories and other follow-ups are often certain to emerge.
  • Never promise a client that you can limit media coverage of a crisis (unless you want to jeopardize the account). Because you can’t.
  • Always clear any responses to the press with the corporate attorney, and
    After each conversation with a journalist, always write a memo to everyone involved with the handling of the crisis about what was discussed.

Many years ago, I authored a statement about PR crisis that has been appropriated by many PR people as their own. It was that “During a PR crisis, staffers should realize that unlike inexpensive clothing, there is no one size fits all response. Each response to a crisis needs original thinking.” It was true then. It is true today.

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Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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