You don’t need another article of platitudes and cliches. I hope to provide you with some practical advice for crisis communication that you can use now, or when you face that next catastrophe.
I’ll give you my background in this niche PR discipline towards the end of this column. I want to get right to the point.
- Designate one person as your spokesperson. You can’t have different managers, owners, and staff spouting off to reporters and customers giving mixed messages, and even worse, contradictory messages.
- The spokesperson should be the CEO. As Hyman Roth said to Michael, “This is the life we’ve chosen.” If you’re a CEO, this is your moment. People want to hear from you. The buck stops with you. It’s your company, so own the message too.
- Tell the truth. The American public is way too smart to buy BS anymore, and you will most likely be found out anyways. We’re much more forgiving to people who own up to it and ask for forgiveness than people who try to deceive us.
- Take your medicine, then move on. I know I said no cliches, but you really need to rip off the band-aide, and I don’t know how to say it more directly. You’re better to take that initial pain earlier on, than to let that problem get infected and kill you.
- Get out in front of it. It’s better to be the deliverer of bad news than for your staff and clients to hear it from someone else. You need to get your facts out as the narrative rather than let someone else define it for you.
- If you’re hit, then hit back. I know this contradicts what we’re told as kids, but don’t let yourself be “swiftboated.” You don’t want your opponent to express one side of the story without your explanation.
- Don’t shoot from the hip.Think before you speak, because most of the problems come from a person speaking too much, giving away too many details, and ultimately veering off message. Think precisely on what you want to say and deliver that message with clarity.
- Keep the circle closed. You should have a few core advisors around you including legal counsel but also your PR pro. Your lawyer will help you with lawsuits, but your PR pro will help you with the court of public opinion and ultimately whether your brand can emerge from the crisis.
- Pitch like a pro. If you want to be taken seriously, please make sure you proof your pitch and take the few minutes to customize the pitch with tailored information for the reporter rather than a blanket statement to everyone. When you send the press release to a reporter make sure the release is part of your email rather than sent as an attachment.
- Remember the Golden Rule – Do to others as you would have them do to you. Reporters are people too and deserve your respect. They’re just doing their jobs. Remember that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. Reporters are under tight deadlines and more pressure so they will take better care of you when you return their calls and treat them like fellow human beings.
What do you do when the crisis is beyond your control, like the coronavirus?
Use your website as the tool it was always meant to be. List your updated hours, whether you’re working remotely, and how people can make payments. Post useful information on social media but be mindful of the news source so you don’t share inaccurate information.
Take advantage of new communications tools. I have been using Zoom to have virtual meetings with my staff, and I’ve also used it to pitch clients out of state. There are many good virtual meeting softwares out there, as well as FaceTime and Skype to communicate face to face with staff and clients. You may even find that this software improves your communications with staff and clients, and you could discover new applications, like using Zoom to record video when you’re not able to shoot in person.
Let’s be nice to everyone. We’re all in this together. Everyone is on edge, and doing 2-3 jobs right now from home-schooling to figuring out how to pay the bills. If someone is short with you, or quick to react, maybe right now is the time to give them a pass.
So, what about me? I’ve been doing PR from the front lines for over 20 years, helping elected officials, CEO’s and small business owners craft their message. I started a business from scratch so if I didn’t produce, I didn’t eat. I am committed to helping my clients navigate through a crisis, and I’m here for you if you need a sounding board.
John Houle is the president of JH Communications and can be reached at 401.831.6123 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.