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How to stop a corporate crisis from turning into a PR crisis

There is no shortage of crises in the news right now, as Jane Griffin, director of agency Positive Story, says: “We’re currently facing a time in the UK where the political situation, energy crisis, impact of cost-of-living, and fake news, have created a malaise and distrust of ‘people at the top’, whether they be politicians, company leaders, or other industry bodies. This makes it much harder for firms to manage a crisis as many of the public have lost interest as they simply don’t know who to trust anymore.” 

However, there are ways that a crisis can, at the very least, be managed. Griffin continues: “Companies in this position need to provide clear, concise and genuine messaging in order to communicate their situation and gain trust again. They need to be open and honest about what’s gone wrong, apologise and explain how they’re going to fix the problem. And in some cases, the best spokesperson to represent the company may not necessarily be the CEO, but someone who is more ‘on the ground’ and has a strong connection with the company’s key audience.” 

Below, other tips for keeping calm and carrying on are offered by those who know how to stop a bad story turning into a catastrophic one.

Think tone, transparency and time

Sinead O’Connor, director at PR agency Nelson Bostock UNLIMITED: “Issues management and crisis comms have never been more important. Balancing speed and accuracy with relevancy and honesty presents a huge challenge for brands when communications are under the spotlight. As such, now is a good time to look at crisis comms through the lens of the three Ts: tone, transparency, and time.

“Firstly, tone - we’re currently living through an endlessly repetitive loop of negative news cycles with no sign of calming down. Cost-of-living crisis. Climate change. The Government shambles. And so on. The tone around comms is important when people are being hit with lots of bleak news - how might the audience feel and how will the media react to your comms?

“Secondly, transparency - we’re in a new age of openness, and transparency provides an opportunity to connect and build lasting relationships with customers. When it comes to sustainability, for example, people are sick of greenwashing - honesty is crucial to building trust!

“Finally, time - getting your message out quickly and effectively minimises speculation, particularly as social media now moves the conversation on at a rapid rate and there’s a risk of being left behind and losing control of the narrative.”

Be fully prepared

Humairaa Tedds, head of press office and in-house crisis comms at agency Spottydog Communications “Preparation is key. Be proactive, engage all key areas of the company to understand and identify all potential crises that could affect your company now and in the future.”

Identify your crisis comms team

Humairaa Tedds: “An effective crisis communications response is only as good as the team behind it. Identify the subject-matter experts in your company who are also natural spokespeople and understand how to reach them in the case of an emergency.”

Write holding statements 

Humairaa Tedds: “Once you have outlined your potential crises, prepare for these scenarios with holding statements. Developing these means there are a bank of statements your PR team have to hand, so they can keep media at bay while you plan the next steps.”

Evaluate and finalise

Humairaa Tedds: “When crisis strikes, it’s important to stay calm and assemble your team. Ensure you have all the facts before you respond - understand what the complications are, what’s led to this crisis, where the company might have gone wrong and who is affected by it. Then, decide on the company’s position and how you will communicate this.” 

Fine tune the response 

Humairaa Tedds: “Each crisis needs a unique response. It’s good practice to have a maximum of three key messages in your response to ensure it covers all key parts of the crisis, but avoid going into unnecessary detail. Be sure to adapt your response for its target audiences and channels and always keep it clear, comprehensive and concise.”

 Case studies

'Celebrity' Matt Hancock

Alex Andrew, account director in crisis and reputation at PR firm The PHA GroupThe current climate offers a plethora of opportunities for brands, governments and individuals to get it wrong when it comes to their own reputation and over the last 12 months, we’ve seen an inordinate amount of back peddling as if it were a new Olympic sport. Most recently, MP Matt Hancock appearing in I’m A Celebrity - and whilst many will be pleased this will delay the possibility of another memoir or self-help book on relationships, is this an attempt to regain the public’s trust? Transparency and emotive understanding towards your audience are core principles that support the development of a trusted relationship with the UK public, one which Hancock is looking to rebuild and help them to 'see a politician as they really are'. However, ‘remote working’ 9,000 miles from his constituency may display a more human side on television, but one’s ability to withstand a cage of snakes isn’t going make a tangible difference to West Suffolk residence and an activity some might say he didn’t even need to leave Westminster for in the first place.”

Other celebrities

Matt Kirschner, EVP/partner at agency Talent Resources: "In every celebrity crisis, it is essential to understand the issues and the potential consequences and help equip the celebrity to deal with the situation effectively. When a celebrity client makes a mistake and the internet storm begins, it’s necessary to get ahead and begin damage control immediately. The best initial steps to take are to remove the content in question, release a statement to acknowledge and apologise for their (potentially) extremely thoughtless or hurtful commentary, and identify efforts they are taking to rectify the situation that they created. Depending on the context of the mistake, additional steps needed may vary. For non-criminal mistakes, like a divorce, or meltdown, the goal is to help the celebrity through the intense moment while protecting their brand's integrity. This can involve helping them understand the mistake, and then take progressive steps to bring positive change to their daily lives, and communities around them."

Underlining how vital it is for PRs to understand the intricacies of crisis management, Jake Setterfield senior account director at PR agency MPC, points out: “'Permacrisis' being announced as the Collins Dictionary word of the year for 2022 might lead us to believe PR teams are enjoying a windfall of reputation management retainers this year. However, with rampant inflation and a global recession on the cards, brands often feel the need to pull the plug on marketing investment during a time of crisis and uncertainty. That's why it's critical for the PR industry to convince clients that investment in public relations isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’.”

Setterfield adds: “It would be remiss for the C-suite to forget it was their PR teams who worked tirelessly to support and communicate with customers during the pandemic - turning on a sixpence to keep their brand relevant, despite the constantly shifting situation. It underpinned the importance of timely comms with clout and demonstrated how cost-effective and adept PRs can be during a crisis.

In conclusion, Setterfield points out what PR must do in these unsettled times: “Looking down the barrel of another global recession, PR teams are best placed to protect reputations and navigate these choppy waters once again. As an industry, we need to get better at practising what we preach. We must demonstrate the critical role of effective comms and clearly communicate that urgent need to the C-suite, to avoid the dreaded plug being pulled.”

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