Plan, Know Your Role & Listen: PRSA-NCC’s “Is It Really a Crisis?”

By Kelsey Pospisil, News Generation

From left to right: Susan Apgood, Maureen Donahue Hardwick, Nick Peters and Jim Moorhead

Pictured from left to right: Susan Apgood, Maureen Donahue Hardwick, Nick Peters and Jim Moorhead

“Crisis” may mean one thing to one PR pro, and one thing to another. How do you most accurately get a pulse on a situation to know how to react? How can you ensure ahead of time that your team is ready to handle it? These questions and more were the focus of the April 19 Professional Development panel, “Is It Really a Crisis? How to Define a Crisis and When to React.” Moderated by Susan Apgood of News Generation, panelists Maureen Donahue Hardwick of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Jim Moorhead of Burson-Marsteller, and Nick Peters of CommCore Consulting Group shared their tips on evaluating and navigating a crisis.

CommCore’s Nick Peters started the session by offering some key advice: going over lessons learned after a crisis is absolutely essential, determine if a crisis is in fact a crisis, and know ahead of time who you sector is, who your stakeholders are, and who your audience is. Peters stressed that just because you determine a situation is a containable emergency, doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential long-term reputational issue based on perception rather than facts.

Maureen Hardwick of Drinker Biddle & Reath said that as a lawyer herself, it’s important for lawyers to be comfortable with crisis communication in order to truly be partners with clients. There are things to prepare and understand in advance, before something big hits. She suggested engaging and partnering with professionals who know what they’re talking about beforehand. Jim Moorhead of Burson-Marsteller gave three best practices to follow in a crisis situation: Figure out what the real threat is, think outside in, and speed kills. Moorhead says that clients need to know three things: “Am I going to be okay,” “Is the situation under control” and “Are you doing the right thing?”

All three panelists stressed the importance of having a set, prepared team in place ahead of time. Have a team who knows their roles before a crisis hits. Peters said the determination of whether something is a crisis or not may or may not always be clear, and that the composition of the crisis team is critical. He suggests a cross-functional crisis team to include HR, Programs, Legal, the Executive Suite, the Communications team, and IT. Hardwick said, “If everyone has the client’s interest in mind, it’s only in our best interest to work better together.” Moorhead suggested the use of pre-approved statements, at least as a general guide, which would then need to be tailored to the particular circumstance.

Crisis Panel

Pictured from left to right: Susan Apgood, Maureen Donahue Hardwick, Nick Peters and Jim Moorhead

Moderator Susan Apgood asked the panelists what tools they would suggest for the audience to help in their crisis communications plans. Peters suggested a literal wheel that contains every single channel, and who is responsible for each channel. He also suggested a decision tree that states if Joe is not available, then Joanne will do it, and if Joanne is not available then Bill will do it. Finally, he suggested having a dark website that can go up immediately in the event of a crisis.

Moorhead emphasized the benefits of survey research – getting to the right community and understanding what people’s perceptions are. You’ll find out: What are effective messages? How would your opponents respond to those messages? What messages work the best in this situation? Who is the best messenger? Hardwick highlighted the importance of being aware of how people are taking information. Be compassionate, honest and interactive – give people a way to comment and be understood. Or in other words, listen to them. There are no downsides to listening, while there are a lot of downsides to talking too much.

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