PR Insider: Keeping the Message Focused in a Crisis

When you or your client is hit with a crisis, there is a traditional check list on what to do and how to handle it. But perhaps the most important thing you can do is keep your message focused.

If you don't, the media will tear you apart and your stakeholders will be confused.

Andrew Blum

The ripple effects of a PR crisis differ if the organization in hot water is a publicly traded company, a private company or non-public organization like an NGO. These days you can also put sports teams and leagues on this list. But all need a focused crisis message.

Even though you may have a PR crisis plan and have done crisis drills, when the actual crisis hits, you won't know what your specific message needs to be right away. You will need to figure that out ASAP depending on the crisis and what the media is reporting and asking.

Your PR and executive teams should come up with draft statements and bullet points for discussion. Once you have agreed which of these is good to use for internal and external comments, the PR team and internal communicators can use it as needed. But make sure your internal and external comment are in sync; if the internal differs from the external, that can lead to confusion  -- especially if the internal is leaked to the press.

Additionally, a crisis is a moving target and it can take different twists and turns. The media can expand its reporting from the original event, posing more damage and questions. You should have draft canned statements ready for each of these new developments and to answer the media. But all should circle back to your original message and stay on focus.

Depending on the crisis and your audience, your message might be: "We deny any wrongdoing and expect to be vindicated," "Our organization is vibrant and can weather this crisis in strong condition" or some variation on the theme. Whatever the message, make it the focus of all your communications efforts during the crisis. If your focus changes too much or too frequently, that can be a recipe for disaster.

Your message's focus should be made known to employees, other stakeholders, the traditional media and be posted on your web site and appropriate social media channels.

Having the right corporate spokesperson in a crisis is key to your focus. In a crisis, the #1 rule for spokespersons is be available. The press hates nothing more than needing to reach the spokesperson they have been told to reach, and that person is unreachable. In a crisis, it makes your company looks bad and may lead to a “no comment” or “unavailable for comment” being your only comment in the story.

Worse for you or your company or client is if the press is reaching out to two spokespeople and getting two different responses. I call this the off-the-reservation syndrome. This is especially true in a high-profile crisis.

Tips for Keeping the Message Focused in a Crisis Today

  • Keep the message simple; change as needed to keep up with developments.
  • Use the web and all social media channels wisely and focus on your message.
  • Have one designated spokesperson with one consistent message.
  • Hire a crisis PR agency. They can help with messaging.
  • Keep up with the client's use of email and social media. They can distract from the message.
  • If your client is flogged in the press daily, pick a select few outlets to give access to or hold some on or off the record briefings. Highlight your message repeatedly.
  • If you promise the press something, deliver or the press will never forget. Remind them you are following through and repeat your message frequently.
  • The local media takes big stories personally so don't forget them even as a crisis goes national. They may be a little more willing to hear the full message than some national outlets.
  • Try to avoid no comment. Say something bland that repeats your message.
  • If you have a gripe with a reporter’s story, talk to the reporter directly. Remind them of your message.

To Learn more about communication strategies during a crisis, join PR News for the Crisis Management Workshop, taking place on March 12 in Washington, DC.

Andrew Blum is a PR consultant and media trainer and principal of AJB Communications. He has directed PR for professional services and financial services firms, NGOs, agencies and other clients. As a PR executive, and formerly as a journalist, he has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years. Contact him at Ablum4@aol.com or follow him on Twitter: @ajbcomms.