A Different Take on the Crisis PR Checklist

Arthur Solomon

I don’t know who invented crisis communications, but it has been a tool of PR agencies for decades. But, unlike the U.S. Constitution, which has been amended as new thinking arises, many of the original tenets of crisis public relations remain the same:

  • Respond quickly 
  • Have the CEO or president of the company respond to the press 
  • Lawyers often are a hindrance when executing a crises response
  • Good crisis strategy can help alleviate the crisis publicity

Count me as an outlier when it comes to the above. Here’s why, point by point:

  • Responding too quickly before the facts are in often results in placing the client in a defensive crouch, as new information is reported. (Remember the BP and Boeing quick responses implying that news accounts were exaggerated.)  
  • CEOs and presidents of companies are often too removed from the actual problem. Better to have an executive who knows first-hand about the crisis answer questions from the media.
  • More important to a company than media coverage when responding to a crisis is to protect the company from additional legal problems. Lawyers know how to do that.
  • A good crisis strategy will certainly provide the company with a platform when responding to the media. But all the media in the world will not help alleviate a crisis. It’s the media, not the PR response, that will determine when negative stories should be discontinued.  

But I do agree with the PR crisis community that advance planning is necessary, as long as the plans are revised to fit each crisis.

While it’s impossible to predict a crisis, here’s some of my thinking, including a few out-of-the box recommendations, on what a before, during and after crises check list should include:

For clients:

  • Treat your PR rep as if he were your corporate attorney. Tell them everything.

  • Make certain that your PR rep is in constant contact with your attorney.

  • Include your PR rep in all strategy sessions.

  • Just as it is necessary to have a crisis communication plan and policy manual, create an email manual detailing what company information can (and cannot) be emailed; the same goes for Twitter accounts. (See New York Times' “EMail Points To Overbilling By Law Firm.)

  • Instruct employees to use the phone, instead of email or Twitter, for sensitive matters; also, don't  record conversations.

  • Never try to hide a problem or hope it will go away. Try to solve it before it mushrooms into a crisis situation.

  • When speaking to the media, always tell the complete truth. It’ll come out anyway.

  • Don’t be intimated when speaking to the media. Act self assured, but not arrogant. 

  • Never answer a question with a “no-comment” response. Explain why you can’t answer the question.

  • Don’t answer “what if” questions.

  • Reply immediately to rumors, but only to the rumor.

  • Don’t hide your CEO. He should appear at the initial press conference and also at subsequent pressers when significant news will be released.   

  • Immediately after a crisis, media train crisis spokespeople to make certain that they all have similar message points.

  • Don’t play the blame game. It only provides additional ammunition for reporters. (Remember the BP situation.)

For Agency PR People

  • Don’t let yourself be victimized by a media feeding frenzy. If the crisis lasts long don’t let the news trickle out. Hold scheduled, twice weekly news conferences, with the best informed high-ranking client executive there to answer questions. This will permit the crisis team, which should include an attorney, to analyze new happenings and help prepare for future press conferences. Statements on other days can be posted on the company website. (Additional press conferences can always be added for important breaking news.)

  • Transcribe questions and answers at the press conference so you can better prepare for future ones.

  • Always have a prepared statement for media distribution at the press conference.

  • Just as you should have a crisis communication plan and team in place, you should also have a “prepare the damage” team.

  • - Create a “prepare the damage” all-media campaign that can be launched ASAP after the cause of the crisis is resolved.

  • Don’t play the “good guy” and acquiesce to every request for an interview. It will help the reporter, but will not do you any good.

  • Treat reporters with respect. They are not your enemies, but remember, they are not your friends, either.

  • After speaking to a reporter, write a detailed report of the conversation and immediately send it to all crisis team members.

  • Email answers to reporters' questions are now an accepted method of communications. When a reporter asks questions, ask if it’s okay to email the answers. That will provide some time to think before you answer. 

  • Just as it is necessary to have a crisis communication plan and policy manual, create an email manual detailing what company information can and cannot be emailed; ditto for Twitter accounts.

While valuable, the most comprehensive checklist only goes so far. What is necessary is that every account team should have an experienced veteran with knowledge of both the PR and news businesses. This person should lead the crisis response team because, if an account is well-staffed, no one should know more about a client’s strengths and vulnerabilities than the day-to-day account handlers.

Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.