How to Level with Clients in Crisis

Crisis Management business concept as a tightrope walker walking out of a confused tangled chaos of wires breaking free to a clear path of risk opportunity as a metaphor for managing organizations.

Many years ago, I coined a phrase that has been widely used in PR crisis prevention articles: “A PR crisis is not a piece of one-size-fits-all clothing. Every crisis deserves original thinking.”

However, many crisis handlers still resort to the theories that date back to the fathers of our profession.

Chief among the stale PR crisis concepts is one that I thoroughly disagree with: That a fast response is necessary if an entity or individual wants to control the narrative.

Responding too quickly before the facts are in often results in placing the client in a defensive crouch, as new information is reported that contradicts the earlier statements.

Remember the BP, Boeing and Wells Fargo quick responses implying that news accounts were exaggerated? Waiting a day or two, while the companies investigated the reasons for their crises before commenting on it would not have prevented damaging media coverage, but would have prevented them from being accused of a cover-up, which has resulted in continuing negative coverage.

A company in crisis is better off issuing a holding statement like, “We’re investigating the situation and will get back to you in a day or two.” If the crises resulted in loss of life, the statement should also express sympathy.

Below are other antiquated crisis tactics that I disagree with:

Always respond to a negative story: Unless loss of life is included or the crisis is so major that it makes front page news, I’ve always advised clients to wait a couple of days before responding to a negative story. That’s because experience shows that most negative stories are short-lived, have a brief shelf life and will cease to be newsworthy as reporters move on to more important stories. A quick response can mushroom a story with a short shelf-life into a “he-said, she-said” saga with legs.

The lawyer dilemma: Many PR professionals believe that clients’ attorneys are a hindrance to the agency orchestrating an intensive positive publicity campaign that would defend the client during a crisis. A lawyer’s prime concern is keeping people and brands out of legal trouble. Many lawyers are PR-savvy and should be valued members of PR crisis teams. Unlike too many PR people, knee-jerk thinking is not often in corporate attorneys’ portfolios. And most important: Getting good press does not prevent legal action. Good lawyering might.

Advice for Clients in Crisis

PR crisis practitioners should level with clients in a crisis situation. They should tell clients the following:

  • If you expect a crisis team to be able to limit negative publicity, don’t waste your money. Only the media will decide when to cease coverage.
  • History shows that no matter how powerful or popular an individual or entity is, even the best PR people in the business can’t prevent negative coverage.
  • Once an entity or individual has been involved in a PR crisis, it’s in its DNA. It will never be forgotten by the media and can be referred to years into the future. The National Football League’s (NFL) attempts to cover-up the concussions problem decades ago is a prime example.
  • Sometimes, in an attempt to counter negative press coverage, a client in crisis will undertake an aggressive media campaign. I always advise against doing so; it usually results in additional negative coverage. (Researching the media crises coverage of BP, Boeing, Wells Fargo and the NFL will corroborate my viewpoint.)
  • Clients should be told that even the best-executed PR crisis plans might not get the desired results that a client wants. During a crisis situation it’s the media or government that are the deciders.
  • Entities involved in a crisis too often think publics not affected by the crisis really care about its outcome. They don’t. Unless individuals have a personal stake in the crisis, people not involved have their own problems to worry about.
  • Many PR people still advise and think releasing bad news on a Friday, Saturday or long weekend will bury the news. This may have been true decades ago, but with the internet and 24/7 news cycle, this goes into the old wives’ tale category.
  • Another antiquated PR crisis tactic that is often advised is that “coming clean” quickly and getting “ahead of the story” will reduce negative coverage. I believe that getting “ahead of the story” means nothing to the media. They still will do the necessary reporting. I do, however, believe in “coming clean quickly.” Doing so will not reduce negative articles, but it will prevent the dreaded drip-by-drip coverage.

Perhaps the most honest thing that PR people should tell a client in crisis is, “It isn’t over till it's over." That comment wasn’t made by a pillar of the PR business. It was (possibly) said by former baseball player Yogi Berra in 1973. And experienced PR people know that sometime it’s never over because reporters research the history of a client when doing new stories.

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller who worked in sports and other sectors. Contact him: [email protected] 

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