The crisis of PR crisis specialists: They have minimal control of how a crisis will play out

by | Apr 29, 2022 | Analysis, Public Relations

For several years before entering the PR business, I was a reporter and editor at several New York City newspapers and wire services. It was because of my experience during my journalism days that I differed on my approach to handling a PR crisis when I joined the PR business.

Because of my out of the box approach to all aspects of PR I was soon labeled a maverick by the higher-ups at the two agencies where I toiled for most of my career—10 years at Advance Public Relations, one of the largest national entertainment agencies at that time, and almost 25 years at Burson-Marsteller, which during my tenure there was one of the largest international PR agencies.
There have been many major changes in the manner that the media handles news stories since I filed my initial article as a reporter. But throughout the years, while news organization made substantial changes to their approaches, I noticed that most PR agencies changes were more cosmetic than game changing; in fact, most were nothing more than a public relations ploy.

Importantly, the change in the manner that journalism is practiced today makes it more essential than ever for PR people to discard the stale PR tenets and think like reporters, producers and journalists do

Here’s why:

  • Unlike when I first entered the PR business, it’s more difficult today than ever to create close relationships with reporters and columnists because so many of them never go to the office. They file their stories from home or at the scene of an event via their computers.
  • Unlike years ago, when reporters would write one story a day, usually when they returned from their assignment to their office, today’s journalists are always on deadline. In addition to writing their main story, they have to report for their publications’ websites and often Twitter feeds. Thus, they don’t have as much time as in the past for “get to know you” lunches, which could lead to close relationships.
  • But it is still possible to forge a relationship with a reporter today by pitching strong stories that work for both the reporter and the client. (Client-centric stories are not welcome by journalists and should be avoided.)
  • How stories are covered, how they are reported and what they say is now checked carefully at major news outlets. Thus, the days of having a reporter pal do you a favor is largely gone.
  • Major newspapers publish corrections every day. If a correction is published because of faulty information provided by a PR person trust will be lost.

In my opinion, one aspect of public relations that needs a complete reworking is the approach to a PR crisis because investigating individuals and entities for wrongdoings are on the rise, resulting in PR crises whose coverage can last indefinitely

Because self-proclaimed crises specialists have no control of the media’s handling of a crisis, tired strategies are still in vogue. They include appointing spokespeople, instituting stakeholder communications, internal communications plans, response planning and crafting replies to the media. None of these tactics can influence the outcome of a crisis or how the stock market might react to an entity’s problem; they might not do any harm, but they will not do any good, except to the outside PR crises specialist team’s bottom line.

Because most PR crises specialists use similar strategies, even though their words might differ, client’s that want to show action to stakeholders, employees and other interested entities embrace these plans, even though the end result might be the same without them.

But the truth of the matter, check the outcome of the Boeing, Wells Fargo, BP oil spill crises, and in the political arena the handling of former President Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s of sexual harassment allegations, and one thing is evident—crisis specialists have minimal control of how a crisis will play out.

What clients most want during a PR crisis is how to lessen the negative press coverage. And the honest PR person will truthfully say, “That can’t be done. Let’s concentrate on the strategy of responding to media inquiries and to plan a post-crisis media plan,” which I’ve always suggested.

Even when the situation that created a PR crisis has been settled, reporters can refer to an entity’s past crisis to flesh out their stories about new ones. In effect, a company’s PR crisis remains in its DNA and can be revived at any time. Thus, the savvy PR account team should always include in its recommendations to clients tactics to respond to negative stories about a company’s past crisis. (My suggestion has always been to ignore such a story, because it’s usually a one day happening. Nevertheless, clients should be provided with options if needed.)

While I criticize many in our business from blindly following PR tenets, there are two rules that I believe should be written in stone, one that I originated many decades ago and has been used by many PR practitioners without giving credit to the originator

  • Whenever a client complained about a negative story, I’ve always told clients that the fastest way to limit negative press coverage to is be honest because it’s better to tell the complete truth about a problem as soon as the facts of the situation are established rather than let them drip out bit by bit. Not doing so is the most important lesson regarding how not to make a PR crisis worse
  • Many years ago, when a client asked my opinion on how to handle a PR crisis, I replied, “All PR crises deserve original thinking. Unlike some clothing, there is no one size fits all solution to a PR crisis.”

And that’s why I sometime have told clients the best way to respond to what seems like a PR crises is to do nothing for several days and see what develops (except in crises involving deaths or criminality), because often what seems like a crisis is nothing more than a few negative stories that is forgotten in a few days.

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 has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.


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