Crisis communications 101: How to deal with a PR disaster


You’ve found yourself at the center of a media storm. What do you do? You call in the PR experts to help you fix it.

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What happens when a high-profile person, or a big company, or a politician really screws up?

Take the case of Gerald Ratner, who in 1991 was the chief executive of a UK jewellery company, Ratners.

That year, he gave a speech to the Institute of Directors, in which he delivered this infamous line: “People say to me, ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, ‘because it’s total crap’.”

The audience laughed, but the shareholders didn’t.

The value of Ratners dropped by half a billion pounds. The company was devastated, and ended up having to rebrand.

There are options, though, if you make a colossal mistake like this.

An apology, a non-apology or a double-down.

But the best course of action might be to call in the experts: public relations professionals, experts in crisis management whose job it is to help you get through it.

So what do they actually do?

Draper Cormack PR company co-owner and former Green Party staffer David Cormack says at a basic level, the job of PR people is to understand how people will emotionally react to things.

“We will provide that information to you, if you do X, a journalist is going to do this line of questioning and the public is going to respond in this way,” he says.

“The best thing that I always bang on about is having a communications person at the top table, in the senior leadership team, because quite often terrible decisions get made because comms people aren’t there and then it goes badly and then the comms person is dragged in to try and fix it after the fact.

“Whereas if you’d had someone whose primary focus is your organisation’s reputation, they may have been able to stop it before it happened.”

Cormack says reputation matters for a number of reasons – in the Ratners example, the company took a massive financial hit.

“But also people just want to be liked, we want to be respected and liked for what we do and understood and appreciated.”

Cormack says how he responds as a PR person in a crisis situation will vary from client to client.

However, he says the first thing they need to ascertain is the facts – and they need people to be completely honest about what’s happened.

“We make it very clear that we can’t do a job for them unless they are fully honest with us, because otherwise it’s not going to go well. You’re basically asking someone to trust you instantly at a time when they’re already in high stress.”

Once that’s all been laid out, Cormack says he’ll play the role of journalist, interrogating and picking holes in it, to find out if there’s missing information.

Cormack says the first public statement is make or break – but he’s a big advocate of people or organizations apologizing if they have actually made a mistake.

“Not doing a politician’s apology, saying I’m sorry that people felt this way, but you actually need to apologise for the action that you’re being criticized for.”

Cormack says most of the time, if you’re staight-up and apologise, the initial response will be to dismiss it as simply a PR response – but over time people will come to admire someone owning up to their mistake.

“That’s a situation where you can actually take the bad event and turn it into a positive testament to character – that’s the best way out of a crisis.”

But Cormack says they don’t see that a lot, because most people don’t like admitting that they’re wrong and instead dig in.

“One of the things that is difficult about our job is that we’re advisers, so we can only give advice and then it is up to you whether or not you take that advice and do what we suggest.”

And Cormack’s advice is to, well, take that advice.

“We’re the experts, that’s why you’ve brought us in.”

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