21 Ways Competent Account Handling Can Help Prevent Unnecessary Crises

Arthur Solomon

Before, during and after a nearly 25-year career at Burson-Marsteller, I always believed that protecting a client from media controversy was more important than the "big hit." It's called "precautionary public relations"—meaning crisis prevention—when planning or implementing an agenda.

Some crises are unforeseen and difficult to prepare for. But crises can also needlessly be spawned by a client during a media interview or a PR firm by constructing an overly aggressive program without doing due diligence to make certain that what is suggested doesn’t bring up client negatives of the past.

Good, professional account handling can often prevent unnecessary crises.

10 ways good account handling may prevent media crises:

  1. Read the major dailies each morning and on weekends, also the business magazines and trade pubs. Notify a client immediately if there is a story that may result in questions from media.

  2. Monitor the Internet and websites of major dailies at least several times a day to see if there is any breaking news that may relate to your client.

  3. If you're aware of a flash-point that may attract media attention, prepare several statements in advance that can be used when needed.

  4. When an unsolicited media call is received, ask the nature of the call and say, "I'll try to find the proper person and get back to you."

  5. After speaking to a reporter, e-mail the answer provided, thus having a written record of what you said.

  6. You don't have to give in to the media pressure of "coming clean immediately." But never lie to or mislead a reporter.

  7. Press conferences can be embarrassing and deadly. Round-table discussions with several hand-picked journalists and individual interviews are usually a safer route.

  8. If a crisis develops, a senior individual with significant media experience should be the lead person in speaking to the media.

  9. Always have a prepared crisis communication plan, covering different situations, so you don't have to start from scratch if you need one.

  10. Prepare, for foreign clients coming to the U.S., a briefing book containing possible tough questions and suggested answers; also, for U.S. clients if media meetings are part of the plan.

Preparing a client for an interview:
Some crises are self-generated by clients during interviews by misstatements or exaggerations. Normally, these are easy to prevent. Here's are 10 ways to do so: 

  1. Emphasize to the client to always be truthful.   

  2. Also, that nothing is ever off-the-record. Even when the notebook is put away and the tape recorder or video camera is turned off, what is said is on-the-record.

  3. Know your media before arranging interviews.

  4. Correct a reporter's or your client's error immediately.

  5. Tell your client not to freelance. If the client doesn't know the answers to a question, say so.

  6. It's okay to tell a reporter the information wanted is proprietary.

  7. Don't fall for the, "I'm on deadline routine and need an immediate answer." It's okay to say, "I'll get back to you."

  8. Don't let an interviewer interrupt an answer. Insist on completing it.

  9. Prepare a list of tough questions that may be asked; have members of your team play reporters interviewing the client. After the mock interview, write three stories to demonstrate how the same story can be written differently. Also, videotape an interview and do the same. Use the mock interviews to refine the client's answers.

  10. Critique each actual interview so your client can be better during the next one.

  11. Prepare a client for an interview by boning up on the subject and deciding on message points. 

  12. And remember: Even your best media friend can't protect you if a big name client messes up during an interview. Too many eyes are watching.

Yes, I believe that in most cases if there's negative news it's best to get out in front of the story so it doesn't dribble out day-after-day. But it depends on the type of crisis. In my opinion, every crisis situation deserves original thinking, even if it means delaying a statement for a day or two until the facts are analyzed. Also, analyzing the media fallout only can help a PR practitioner give better advice.

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 now is a frequent contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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