Some Rules for the Successful Crisis Communicator

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Everyone agrees that the role of the intelligent public relations practitioner is to know the facts and get them out quickly. Unfortunately, sometimes management hides the facts from its own people and the public relations person is one of the last to know. Well, life is filled with frustrations and compromise, but there are some things you can do as a (potential) crisis communicator to be better prepared and, once confronted with a crisis, handle it efficiently, professionally, and ethically:
  1. Meet with the potential spokespeople and available experts and provide them with media training and other communications coaching.

  2. Go over all of your fact kits and other materials. They should be up todate and approved by management, so that they can be released by you as needed. While you rarely are in a position to be the judge and jury, be absolutely certain of the facts, even if it means slowing things up a bit Try to stick to what you know to be the truth, and, if possible, the whole story.

  3. Don't trust secondary sources, don't assume, and don't rush or be pressured by the media.

  4. Learn how to say, "no comment, we are investigating and will get back to you," in as polite and cordial and truthful a manner as possible.

  5. Try to avoid comparisons, as your problem then may be linked with worse problems.

  6. A situation may call for an aggressive stance, possibly a rebuttal org counterattack, but keep in mind that such action may simply keep the charges in the headlines and cause the situation to last longer. Of course, in some cases you may be able to deflect potentially embarrassing questions and, in the process, look and sound good, but don't forget that the media will persist if the story is important enough.

  7. In recent years, both the print and broadcast media have become more aggressive and enterprising, particularly with regard to investigative journalism. They will stick with a story and retaliate if they believe they have been deceived or subjected to unnecessary or excessive secrecy. Lies will invariably generate skepticism and hostility from the media.

  8. Keep a log of all incoming phone calls, including those you handle and those you don't Before you reply, think carefully about the questions the media are likely to ask. Write down your answers and rehearse them.

  9. If you are involved in a situation in which you have to issue corrections, retractions, and apologies, think carefully about whether if s really necessary to do so or whether such actions will simply be repeating the bad news. To put it another way, are you prolonging or quantifying the blunder?

  10. On the other hand, how you present a "no comment" can itself be incriminating we've all seen individuals frantically trying to cover their faces as they are escorted into a police station, which to most of us insinuates guilt (Pleading the Fifth Amendment, though every citizen's right, often results in the same conclusion.) So consider a vigorous denial, but one that stops short of an all out counterattack.
Doctors generally do better with sick patients and lawyers prefer clients with problems. I'm certain that public relations professionals specializing in crisis communications don't pray for problems to occur, though a friend of mine recently heard bad news about his employer and gleefully exclaimed, "Great! Now they need me!"

Richard Weiner, Senior Counselor, Porter/Novelli, New York

Love Canal. Tylenol. Grenada. Bhopal. The Iran Contra affair. The Wall Street insider trading scandal. The Alaska oil spill.

Just about everyone is familiar with these events all were crises that were widely reported by the media. And all involved the services of public relations people.

A New and Exciting Specially

"Crisis communications" has become an extremely important and exciting specialty within the public relations field. A career in this area will give you the chance to participate in problems of urgency and considerable consequence. You'll be in the midst of tomorrow's headlines and trying your darnedest to influence them!

If you have a background in law, political science, sociology, psychology, or other social sciences, becoming a crisis communicator probably is more appealing than a career as a product publicist, special events coordinator, or other seemingly mundane jobs.

The fact is that while practitioners involved in product recalls, industrial accidents, and other tragedies must have the same ability to write speeches, testimonies, news releases, and other materials as any public relations professional, these journalistic skills must be utilized quickly and intelligently in times of crisis. There's never time for dozens of rewrites.

The public relations people who are involved in crises must be prepared to counsel top executives with wisdom, patience, and creativity, and then execute the plan that evolves with the efficiency that comes from finely honed experience.

It's not easy, but it can be extraordinarily rewarding.

RICHARD WEINER has had over 30 years of public relations experience. He is best known for the 1983 introduction of the Cabbage Patch Kids, and has launched many other successful products. He also has been involved with product recalls and other crisis communications. He received an M.S. degree in genetics from the University of Wisconsin and started as a science journalist and broadcaster.

Thousands of PR students and experienced practitioners have used Mr. Weiner's books and attended his courses and workshops. His books include Professional's Guide to Public Relations Services (sixth edition, Amacom), Professional's Guide to Publicity (Public Relations Publishing Co.), Syndicated Columnists, and other directories. His latest book is Webster's New World Dictionary of Media and Communications (Simon & Schuster). He taught a public relations course at Fordham University Graduate School of Business, conducted dozen of workshops for the Public Relations Society of America, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges and professional organizations. In 1990, he received the Public Relations Society of America Gold Anvil, the highest honor to an individual in the public relations field.
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