Six essential “don’ts” for effective crisis PR

If you are not familiar with the applicable law and regulation there are a number of traps which you can fall into when doing crisis PR. One reason is that those who make the key editorial decisions – including editorial lawyers such as me – do know the law and regulation and therefore have a distinct advantage if you do not.

Editorial decisions both for print and broadcast news are made up of a two-stage process. The first is whether this is a story that warrants telling. If so, the next is whether there is a regulatory or legal risk involved. Effective crisis PR requires dealing with the second process; which itself splits into two.

Part one is an assessment of whether the is potential regulatory or legal challenge to the story. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then the second question is how likely is that we will be challenged to justify the publication of the story. Effective crisis PR requires that the answer to that second question is, very likely.

My 25 years as an editorial lawyer has fed into my work as a crisis PR lawyer, and into my crisis PR seminar. One of the seminar’s slides has six essential “don’ts” for effective crisis PR – the best form of which is to prevent the crisis from occurring at all. Here they are.

1. Being passive in the face of a media crisis is almost always the wrong option
It is a sad facet of human nature that bad news attracts readers more than good news. The media’s default to bad news must therefore be tackled to avoid your reputation/brand dying a death of a thousand cuts. If that is not done its destruction will be monetised by the media, and thus bad news about you is much more likely to re-emerge.

3. Don’t ignore the problem because in any subsequent regulatory or legal complaint, a failure to address the story first time will be held against you
Rightly or wrongly, if you take issue with a story other than on its first outing this will be raised as an issue. The second iteration may have been checked more thoroughly because of passivity in the face of the first iteration, but that is not likely to get around the problem. The earlier story may also be too old for a successful regulatory or legal complaint, which means that it is going to turn up in a Google search anyway.

3. Never tell the media anything which is untrue or about which you are unsure
If you make a statement to a media entity which it might be able to prove is wrong, then it is pretty well game over. They will believe nothing else you say, and will feel free to make editorial decisions boldly at your expense. One of the bases of my success in crisis PR is that the people with I deal with in the media know I would never mislead them.

4. Never try to deal with crisis PR situations on the phone
Where there is an uncontroversial editorial error to be corrected a phone call may be okay. But I do not categorise such situations as crisis PR, which I regard as a situation where a media entity either threatens to or has published something which it has committed to and which inflicts PR damage. In these circumstances all communications should be in writing so that there is no doubt about what has and has not been said; and the key messages will make their way uncorrupted to the key decision-makers.

5. Never be fooled by the line; “we just want to get your side of the story to ensure a balanced account”.
What is really going on here is that the journalist has been prepped to hedge against a potential regulatory and/or legal challenge by getting you to provide the story with a brief postscript in the form of a denial. That is good for the paper/broadcaster, but bad for you or your client.

6. Sometimes the worst thing you can do in a crisis PR situation is to offer a statement
The offering of a statement is likely to be treated by the editorial lawyer as your consent to the damaging story being published as long as at least the gist of the statement is tacked on at the end; even if the statement is an unequivocal denial. This can just make things worse. If the story is wrong, that should be set out clearly and in detail to the publisher, and the applicable regulatory and legal principles should accompany it. That is the only way you have any real chance of killing the story off – the best form of crisis PR. Here is an earlier PRMoment article I wrote on this issue; .

Written by Jonathan Coad, Coad Law