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How to handle a PR crisis

Last time we posted Oxygen’s tips for PR crisis planning. But whether or not you have a plan in place, the way you handle an unfolding crisis makes all the difference to how much your company’s reputation will suffer. For instance, in the wake of Tesco’s clumsy ‘it’s time to hit the hay’ tweet during the horsemeat scandal which made them look unconcerned about customer outrage, 16% of their customer base have deserted them. However, staying calm and saying the right thing in a crisis, with chaos all around you, isn’t easy.

The ultimate goal in a PR crisis management

A good PR crisis campaign will attempt to stay ahead of the news cycle and disseminate the facts, broadcast the company’s line or message on the issue, and squash any rumours and errors. Here are Oxygen’s tips for handling a PR crisis well.

“You have roughly half an hour to take control of the situation.”

PR crisis tip #1 – respond quickly

You have roughly half an hour − perhaps less −after a crisis breaks to take control of the situation. If you have a holding statement prepared responding quickly will be easier. You have to be careful not to take responsibility for third parties or for matters outside your control. On the other hand it’s really important that you’re seen to take people’s concerns seriously and to be doing all that you can. So don’t say ‘no comment’ or ‘we’ll come back to you’ or even worse, shut all your social media accounts down. It makes you look anything from totally unprepared and inept to callous. Make sure you’ve contacted all the affected stakeholder groups and important media. Again, pre-prepared lists make this process a lot easier.

PR crisis tip #2 – don’t lie or speculate

Gather the facts so that you’re able to give your chosen media outlets concrete, credible information and regular, scheduled updates on the situation. Do not speculate. Do not bend the truth. You’ll be found out and the subsequent damage will be far worse. What your customers need from you in a crisis is the sense that they can still trust you. So work hard to rebuild that trust. Crises can happen to anyone. They’ll forgive you if you handle the situation well.

PR crisis tip #3 – speak with one voice

Ideally you’ll already have identified a series of high level people in the organisation with the authority, interpersonal skills and media savvy to be your ‘sympathetic face’ during the crisis. They have to be accessible and primed with your company line on the issue, so that contradictory messages don’t emerge. Don’t forget to remind staff what your policy is, and to keep them updated with information as each update emerges too.

PR crisis tip #4 – own up to mistakes

Everyone gets things wrong sometimes. People will forgive you if you exhibit transparency, humility and make a genuine effort to put things right. Don’t be afraid to apologise. Holding your hands up makes it possible to take control of the conversation by shifting it to the way you’re improving things. If you’re not in the wrong, gather evidence that will refute the rumours flying around, but be sure to take responsibility for any aspect of the issue that is yours. Cooperate, and be seen to cooperate with any third party investigation or regulatory body. And never criticise an injured party. Public sympathies will be with victims.

PR crisis tip #5 – offer help where you can

Putting an emergency or hardship fund in place to help your clients or customers, or offering a discount, refund or other practical help shows genuine concern and humility – all of which will be appreciated. Be careful not to undermine these efforts by using defensive language or jargon in order to distance yourself. You need to look genuinely contrite, friendly and concerned.

PR crisis tip #6 – monitor the media and the web

It’s important to stay ahead of shifts in public opinion so that you can respond quickly to rumours, speculation, misreporting and mischief – especially with social media. You need to stay responsive and modify your message accordingly.

PR crisis tip #7 – bring in the experts

If you’re at all unsure about how to proceed, call in the experts, and quickly. You’ll find their experience is worth its weight in gold.

If you need help with PR crisis planning or management, why not contact our PR experts today on 0845 2606 255. We’ll help you ride out the storm.

Katie Sanders :Katie took a sales background into marketing, and holds chartered marketer status with the Chartered Institute of Marketing. A devotee of PR she heads up our publicity team.