Yesterday a good friend asked for tips on public relations in a crisis. PR is not my area, and, in a crisis, I’d recommend consulting with people who specialize in crisis PR. However, I have learned a thing or two. At the risk of being prosaic, they largely smack of common sense and common decency. Here are some thoughts:
Limit main points. No more than three, two being better, one being best. Too many talking points risks two disadvantages for you: 1) No one will quite know what to focus on, meaning that no one will quite know what you said. 2) The more you talk, the more points you give an opponent to debate.
Know when to stop. Engaging an unwinnable debate only prolongs and escalates it. “Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.” — Will Rogers
Don’t lie. If ethical considerations leave you unmoved, consider how much uglier things will get when you’re caught. Which you will most likely be.
You never win by telling the public they’re wrong, even when they are. When research showed that the public didn’t think an alleged charitable organization deserved tax-free status, I advised responding with a campaign saying, in essence, “We hear you, and here’s what we commit to do to make things right...” After chastising me for a so-called negative attitude, the CEO tasked the PR department with telling the public they were guilty of misjudging his wonderful company. A few months later, the public replied — in voting booths. Now the organization is legally required to prove its tax-exempt worthiness, county by county, each year.
Admit found-out mistakes. Note the given, namely, that they are already “found-out.” Which means you’ll have to admit them sooner or later anyway. The longer you wait, they more they needlessly inflate. Think Monicagate.
Make friends before you need them. Reporters are more apt to hear your side — that is, “get” what you’re saying — when they already know and trust you.
Radical PR idea: don’t screw up in the first place. Hindsight aside, I am surprised at how often this one is overlooked. A large corporation getting beat up in the media for being “too rich” decided to jerk their commercials from the TV station dealing them the worst blows. I suggested rethinking that one. Otherwise, imagine the next news story: “Evil company flexes monetary muscle to silence valiant reporter.” In a rare instance of sanity, the corporation heard me and abandoned the plan. (“You have more PR sense than my PR people,” the VP of Marketing told me. Well, yeah, at least in that instance.)
Of course, no matter how well one manages crisis PR, there’s no telling what the opposition will do. Good luck to you all.