Sometimes, a PR crisis happens when you least expect it. Something you say, do, or publish that you feel is perfectly innocuous sets off a chain reaction of negative headlines that catches you completely off guard and knocks you on your heels like a heavyweight uppercut to the chin. When that happens, what you do next can often determine if you can fight your way to a win, or if you go down for the proverbial ten-count. Here are five ways to respond proactively to a PR crisis, even if it catches you completely off guard.
1 – Keep Your Powder Dry
This adage is borrowed from a military practice. In essence, it means there’s a fight coming and you need to be prepared, no matter what. If your gunpowder is wet, your weapon won’t fire. In PR, if you don’t have effective tools for responding when attacked, your brand may take a fatal shot before you can even return fire. So, keep your proverbial powder dry by making sure your rhetorical tools are sharp, your media connections are tight, and your reputation is solid in your market.
2 – Don’t Let Them Put You on the Ropes
No matter what is said, when you look defensive, that creates seriously negative optics. Consider the recent issues surrounding OSU coach Urban Meyer. One of the big reasons so many people just assumed he was guilty was that disastrous press conference at the Big Ten media day. If Meyer had been prepared for anything, he could have kept his composure and not looked defensive, which, again, often means “looking guilty,” regardless of the facts. So, answer questions directly and avoid pointing fingers. Keep your rhetorical hands up and stay balanced.
3 – Pick Your Battles
These days, between the 24-hour news cycle and social media, attacks can be constant, and they can come from anywhere. If you try to counter every message and fight everyone, you will be exhausted, and your resources will be stretched way too thin. You will end up doing yourself more harm than good. So, when under attack, consider the source. If it’s not worth responding to, don’t respond. No matter how aggravated or hurt you may be. Let it roll off. Keep your focus on the important battles.
4 – Be Honest and Brief
When the crisis first hits, all your instincts will come to the surface. You will either want to hide or to go on an all-out assault. Neither of these options is generally the best decision long-term. Instead, work to get out ahead of the narrative. Come out, make a brief, honest statement. Project the right amount of concern, then shut up and walk away. Do not be baited into saying too much too soon, or into saying something that can be twisted or something angry that you can’t take back. Instead, spend some time crafting a considerate response. Weigh the potential consequences and choose the appropriate media outlet through which to convey your message.
5 – Flip the Script
Mistakes are opportunities to improve. Problems are a chance to discover a solution. The reality is, if you are putting yourself or your brand out there, sooner or later, you will upset someone, make a mistake, or create a problem. That’s just the facts of life as humans. We don’t know everything, and, sometimes, we screw up. It’s what we do in those moments where the real gold of the story can be mined. Be honest and empathetic, focus on what you’re doing to get better and, where appropriate, take the opportunity in the public eye to remind people of what you’re doing well.