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Communicating your way through a public relations crisis

Show and Tell on Sep 28, 2020

mobile phone on fire being put out by emergency services

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
~ Oscar Wilde

Given Oscar Wilde’s tragic end as a result of being talked about, this quip wasn’t even true in his time. Contrary to the old adage, there has always been such a thing as bad publicity. And especially in this cancel culture era, truly objectionable behaviour or even ill-judged blunders can destroy businesses and people faster than 5G. Just ask the Kielburger brothers.

That said, recovery from bad publicity and even scandal is certainly possible. We’ve helped clients successfully navigate public relations minefields. But before we get into our oxymoronically termed “crisis management” advice — a few words about PR in general.

We call it earned media for a reason.

As opposed to paid media (advertising), getting news coverage is never guaranteed — you need to earn it. Meaning, your story must be newsworthy enough for a reporter to invest their time in telling it. They need to recognize that the public would be interested.

And earned media is certainly not “free advertising.” Most news outlets also sell advertising so they’re not about to give it away. So when clients ask us to get them media coverage, we’re honest about the newsworthiness of their story and will sometimes advise against trying to gain publicity. You don’t want to get a reputation for crying wolf and have news outlets ignore you when you actually do have something worth covering — or worse, develop a bias against you.

Don’t get me wrong — we do PR work  and regularly build integrated strategies that leverage earned and owned communications channels along with paid advertising. You just need to have realistic expectations about what you can achieve through each.

Remember that you can say what you want in your advertising and your own authored content, but you have no control over your message in the news. Even a positive news article about a corporate milestone, for example, is likely to frustrate you because the reporter may not cover what you think is the most important part.

They may also get another’s perspective — and you might not like it. Because good reporters will seek to cover both sides of a story, and they will dig to add depth. So you need to assess if there is any potential downside to engaging the attention of news media. Because if they flip over a rock and find something ugly underneath — well, then you’re flung into crisis management.

Worse yet, if the story has the tenets of a they said / they said scenario, some reporters will invariably concentrate on one side of the story (the more explosive side) and/or not understand or investigate the issue properly. We are seeing more and more of this type of unfortunate reporting, and it can do severe damage that’s tough to undo.

Truthfully — the truth is muddy.

Absolutely, some of the clients we’ve helped did make mistakes for which they needed to make reparations. Others were just naive, careless, and/or misstepped.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
~ Oscar Wilde

This may sound like bulls@#%t, but we truly believe every client in crisis with whom we’ve worked was essentially in the right and deserved to survive the storm. So we worked to help them come out on the right side of the scandal. In fact, we have turned down work because we weren’t comfortable with the ethics.

As public relations professionals, we’re kind of like lawyers or priests — and it’s weird knowing the whole story behind highly public scandals, and not being able to talk about the details. However, without naming names — here are some issues we’ve dealt with, like:

Having to wrench control of a website and social media channels away from a “rogue” employee who locked everyone else out.

Always have more than one trusted administrator who has primary control over your owned media channels. Keep track of all your channels and current login access and password information.

Dealing with the repercussions of a municipality locking a special interest group out of a meeting because they were two minutes late and the City official was just “following the rules.”

Assess the potential fallout of every action, and be flexible and exceptionally accommodating. Essentially — be the party who takes the high ground.

Brokering a public meeting, writing the apology, and negotiating a path to compensation for a company that accidentally started fires within a First Nation territory after initially denying responsibility.

Admit when you’re in the wrong – it’s the most effective way to move forward.

Announcing a takeover of a Canadian company (and local success story) by a foreign entity in a way that ensured the international news coverage we earned was positive.

It’s all about a celebratory tone and ensuring everyone involved stays on message.

Announcing the implementation of a new automated production process (that would reduce staffing levels at an industrial plant significantly) in a way that ensured news coverage was positive.

Focus on the technology (in this case a first in Canada) and its advantages as a point of pride for the organization. And honestly… reporters are overworked, and often only have time to report from well-written news releases.

Advising a client to inform an employee of their termination for misconduct earlier than planned — so we could stop an incendiary media story from being published. (It worked. And the reporter is still mad at us.)

Get all the HR paperwork in place, no matter if you need to pull the trigger.

We certainly hope you never end up having to deal with anything like this, but in case you do, the following are some general tips should you ever find yourself in a communications crisis:

Be prepared to lawyer up
Depending on the seriousness of the issue, you may need a legal professional to assess whether or not there are legal implications. A good lawyer will also advise you about what you should not say publicly to protect against libel.

Be prepared to toughen up
Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments. Oh crap: you read the comments.

We believe people most likely to comment on social media and in the comment sections of media stories do not represent the majority — they represent those most likely to revel in your predicament, or people who just like drama. And unfortunately, these people are also the most vocal, and many are downright vicious. So yes: it’s going to hurt.

However, while we encourage you not to, we review public commentary because it’s useful in tracking the sway of public opinion, identifying any broadly-held misperceptions we might need to address, and assessing if the story is blowing up or dying down.

Pro Tip: NEVER delete even the most ridiculous, negative or false comment on your own social channels unless it breaches your social media policy (abusive language, profanity, etc.) That will blow up in your face.

Be prepared to shut up
Generally Show and Tell’s approach to crisis communication is conservative. We call it fighting fire with water. Most often our primary goal is to end the news coverage and social media chatter — to douse the fire. As such, beyond addressing misinformation, we usually avoid feeding the fire by providing anything new that will further the story. So, similar to a lawyer, we might advise you not to comment — to the media, on your social channels or even to your cat. Honestly: that is going to be highly frustrating for you. Especially if you know you’re in the right and want to defend yourself and tell the whole story. Keep the goal in mind. And listen to your agency and lawyers.

Be prepared to fess up
If you’re at fault, if someone was hurt, apologize. And do it quickly, publicly, thoroughly, and unreservedly. None of this “I’m sorry you feel that way…” or “we’re not the only one’s to blame” passive-aggressive nonsense. Most people are naturally forgiving, especially when someone admits they were wrong and they regret their mistake. This is the most effective way to move on and begin repairing the damage.

Be prepared.