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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Lessons From Flint: Where Crisis and Ethics Intersect

In January, the nation watched in shock as news of a man-made public health crisis unfolded in Flint, Michigan. Authorities knew there were dangerous levels of lead in tap water, threatening the health and development of thousands of children, and they did nothing about it for more than 18 months. This revelation has us all wondering whether our own tap water is safe, and it has PR people wondering, how could this happen?

ethics2Lots of factors contributed to the operational crisis in Flint, creating a perfect recipe for disaster: an aggressive water, lead pipes, a lack of treatment, a lack of data collection and a lack of communication. Though many communities have lead pipes, they don’t have the other factors to deal with, and so another operational disaster like Flint is unlikely. What is likely, however, is another similar PR disaster. Why? Discrimination, social injustice, and at its most basic – ethics.

It’s a cautionary tale. To avoid reputational damage, financial loss and litigation, brands think they need to erase their errors, spin their shortcomings or co-opt the conversation. On the contrary, the key to a long-standing trusted, profitable brand is honesty, transparency and, of course, an ethical approach.

Profits Over People

At the heart of the Flint crisis, which is at the heart of most crises organizations face, is a question of allegiance. Most organizations put their allegiance entirely to their brand. Why? Because they fear loss of profit and reputational damage if they don’t. Protect the brand is what we PR people are hired to do. Or is it?

Actually, the number one ethical principle underlying the practice of public relations is to “act in the public interest.” Simply put, that means our allegiance, if we’re working ethically, is first to the greater good for the majority of people and then to the brand we represent.

Stop and consider that. Are you acting in the interest of the greater good? Does your organization put the public interest before their brand? In perhaps the most famous, and sadly one of very few, cases where a company actually did, was Tylenol. In the early 80s, they recalled 100 percent of their product when they learned that criminal tampering had led to seven deaths. The action cost them $100 million and loss of market share. More than 30 years later, Tylenol is still at the top of the pain relief market, and remains the poster child – the exception to the rule – for crisis management.

Crimes vs Mistakes

What happened in Flint was a crime. So, from a PR perspective, the options aren’t great. If you found out tomorrow your organization had committed a crime or purposefully misled its stakeholders, which, in turn caused damage, what would you do? Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment in your career. If your savings account permits, it’s an easy answer. You can walk away. But how likely is that the option we have? If you can’t quit, can you convince your organization to fess up and do the right thing? Moreover, do you have the strength and stomach to guide them through it? Is your organization willing? Do they even agree they have done wrong?

Many companies are either unwilling to admit wrongdoing or their lawyers will preclude it. Lawyers rarely even allow clients to say sorry because they say it is an admittance of guilt. In all other aspects of humanity, we know that saying sorry is an act of empathy, and the first step towards receiving forgiveness. Situations like Flint, with a breach of ethics so bold, pose a tough decision for PR people. It’s hard for a brand to recover from an outright crime and the PR person who stays to help them through it will undoubtedly test or breach the tenets of our Code of Ethics. At least for an innocent mistake, there’s hope. This is where the value proposition of PR comes in.

PR’s Value Proposition

Odds are in your favor if leading up to an event like this, you have built a long-lasting, enduring program of proactive public relations with ongoing, two-way engagement between your organization and the people on whom its success depends. Assuming you have built this kind of program, and your organization puts the public interest ahead of its own, you have a fighting chance. So when a crisis hits whether self-made or by accident, here’s the drill:

Step One: Be first to admit what you did, and, show regret and empathy.

Step Two: Describe in detail how you will fix it and prevent a recurrence, then over deliver on that promise.

Step Three: Do everything you said, and make sure everyone knows.

Very easily said. How these three steps get accomplished is not so easy and a Blog unto itself. Timing, credibility of spokesperson(s), word choice, nonverbal behavior and of course – the enterprise-wide operational feat of making things right again – is a formidable endeavor. But, as Tylenol proved, it’s always the right one if a full recovery is to be realized.

PR can’t fix bad behavior. Only good behavior can do that. PR can only reveal. It’s a lesson for us all. When you put the greater good as your focus, and let transparency be your guide, you will always come out right. But put your brand first like Flint did and you will end up meeting the destiny you fought so hard to avoid.

 

Samantha Villegas, APR

President

SaVi PR, LLC