Discarding Crisis PR Tenets That Were Effective During the Ice Age

Communicators should remember that many PR crisis tenets are antiques, practiced since PR was invented. While a few remain in vogue, we should have discarded them during the last ice age. Below are several:

Tenet: A good crisis response can erase negative reputation.

Why It's Incorrect: Despite the smooth-talking assurances of some crisis communication experts, major crises have no discard after date. PR crises can have a decades-long shelf life. Companies like BP, Wells Fargo and Boeing still are cited in articles about how not to respond to a crisis.

Tenet: Frequent media statements are a 'must' during a PR crisis.

Why It's Incorrect: High-ranking execs of BP, Wells Fargo, Boeing and United would have been better off saying less than more. It appears that their approaches were “we’re too big to fail.” They were wrong. Missing was original thinking and media training. While you should keep media and the public informed when possible, sometimes saying less is the best strategy.

Tenet: Always respond to a negative story.

Why It's Incorrect: Similar to the above, sometimes the less said the better. Many negative stories are short-lived. They last a day or two, three days at most. And unless it is about a highly newsworthy topic, reporters will move off it quickly and seek other news.

An exception is when the story has legal ramifications. In that case a prompt response is important.

Still, with most negative stories the advice is wait a bit, perhaps a couple of days, before responding. A quick response can mushroom a story with a short shelf-life into a he-said-she-said saga with legs.

Tenet: Releasing bad news on a weekend, holiday or during a major event will limit  coverage.

Why It's Incorrect: Before the advent of 24/7 news coverage and cable news networks, releasing bad news on a Friday or long weekend was an accepted PR practice. It can work today in limited instances.

For example, an early expose of Facebook published at the same time America was fixated on the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh. Initially, coverage of the Kavanaugh hearing crowded out other news, including the Facebook bombshell. As we know, eventually Facebook was scrutinized heavily. It still is.

So, you can try to game the system and time bad news. In general, though, it doesn’t work consistently. All it does is delay the story until the next day’s news cycle.

Tenet: Respond immediately during a PR crisis. 

Why It's Incorrect: Responding to a PR crisis before the facts are clear often leads to dissemination of partial news or misinformation. It's a controversial stance, but it's best to wait a day or two until the facts are known.

In the meantime, a 'we’re gathering information and will hold a press conference as soon as we have information to disclose,' is sufficient.

An exception is when crisis includes victims. Issue a message of sympathy promptly.

Tenet: During a PR crisis, a top executive should be the spokesperson.

Why It's Incorrect: The lead spokesperson during a crisis should be the executive who knows the most about a situation. Multiple spokespeople are fine, according to the question asked.

Tenet: Have a crisis communication plan on the shelf.

Why It's Partially Incorrect: It’s good to have a plan that details things like who should immediately be informed of a crisis, possible spokespeople and a checklist of first steps. Other than those do-it-by-the-book ABC’s, every crisis needs original thinking. Unlike clothes, there is no one-size-fits-all crisis program.

In sum, too many of us resist change and use playbooks written years ago. Original thinking is too often missing in crisis-response communication. We must stay current with news and trends. Doing so provides up-to-date ideas about responding to crisis.

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. Contact him: [email protected] 

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]