How Do You Handle a Public Crisis?
This week, we are reviewing case studies and crisis communication in public relation disasters. There are so many critical steps to responding to a PR crisis, it’s difficult to narrow down to just three. However, the question was posed to us: what three tips would you offer in crisis communication?
- Be prepared and have a plan for before, during and after the crisis. Know the issue, gather all the available facts, tangible research and learn the entire event inside and out before formulating a public response. Some cases may be of such an urgent nature, and time sensitive, you may not have the freedom to be as thorough as this step would require. Choose the right spokesperson. The Chief Executive or some other senior management figure who is competent and informed needs to have strong visibility and field questions. That appointed person needs to become the face of the brand throughout the crisis communication process. Use the brand’s mission, vision and values to guide your plan and response, ensuring it adheres to the brand’s core values. The communication plan needs to go beyond the initial stages of the crisis. Before and during are critical times in the face of public disaster. However, debriefing afterward and reviewing things that could or should have been done differently needs to be addressed in a formal plan as well, and communicated to the public. In some cases, it may guide reshaping of certain policies or practices of the brand to assure no reoccurrence of the tragedy takes place.
- Be honest, but never speculate. Provide factual updates consistently. Do social listening on all social media outlets, respond to the public’s need for information in a thoughtful, factual manner that will ease any fear, anger or apprehension they may have. If you are lacking in details, admit it, but follow with providing assurance that you are working diligently to get a clear understanding of the crisis and all factors. You need to let them know in absence of information that you WILL find the answers and communicate them as soon as you do. Ethical business practices and transparency is paramount to earn back the trust of consumers, stakeholders and the general public in the face of disaster.
- Be accountable, take responsibility if it’s yours to take. In certain circumstances, the company lawyers would advise abstaining from this. However, in situations where accountability is irrefutable, shoulder the blame if that’s where it belongs.The brand and its appointed communicator need to demonstrate empathy and compassion in the face of tragedy. Issue an apology where needed. People’s inherent nature in the face of tragedy is to direct blame and try to make sense of what happened. There will be outrage, fear, and turmoil, especially in light of events that could have been prevented. Demonstrate compassion for those impacted by the event and wherever possible, work to make amends or compensate where needed.
My case study assignment this week gave me a powerful insight into how PR Crisis Communication can be done well. The case I chose, was the Maple Leaf Foods Listeriosis Crisis. (You can read more about the case here from the plaintiffs’ counsel in the class-action lawsuit.) Swift, thoughtful, informed and strategic response. There are so many factors in handling public relations matters in a time of crisis. Having as much information and a clear plan to communicate, address and rectify the situation as quickly as possible is ideal. It may not always be feasible, but it does give the brand a chance to win back the confidence of the public when handled correctly.
That’s all for now, folks!