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Crisis Communications – A PR Primer for The Rest Of Us

I’ve seen this question several times in LinkedIn and other forums: “What would you do if Penn State were your client?” It’s similar to the ones that swirled for months during the BP oil spill in the gulf and the tense posturing that followed. And the answer is the same for both questions, and any other like them: “I don’t know, exactly, because I’m not on the inside, hearing the secrets, reading the face of the guy who has to go on camera, seeing the possibilities and the problems first hand. And I don’t know, more importantly, because I haven’t spent hours and hours researching, interviewing, formulating and preparing.”

So my advice is to stop wasting your time thinking about the crisis you aren’t called to handle, the one you’ll never need to walk through, and start thinking about the ones that might become your waking nightmare tomorrow. Or later today, for that matter. There are some things every single business owner should do, right now, to help prepare for the inevitable, and believe it or not, one of them is NOT putting a PR pro on retainer.

  1. Develop a set of “Who We Are” statements. This need not be a formal process or an official mission statement. The value of official mission statements varies inversely with the size of the company printing them on internal posters. But knowing what you stand for, really, and knowing your employees know it, feel it, live it, is crucial to avoiding many crisis in the first place. If your statements are just hollow words… either take a harder look at who you are, even if it’s painful or you don’t like what you see (you can change it going forward), or fire some people who aren’t rowing in the same direction.
  2. Think deeply about your business environment. Categorize risks… do your employees travel by car to locations? To client’s offices or homes? Is your company in the business of advising people on a course of action that might affect their health, wealth, enjoyment or happiness? Are there regulations that change or may change that affect how you do business? Is employee turnover high? Do you have proprietary information that could be vulnerable? Make some notes about some of the possibilities, including ones that don’t seem all that likely, such as a high-profile client claiming your employee’s errant word of advice during a chance meeting at a local restaurant caused him to lose (face, millions, a bet…whatever). If there are vulnerabilities that can be fixed or addressed, do that. Have a meeting with your employees and explain the “always representing” aspect of today’s connected marketplace. Have a social media policy in place. Make sure insurance, handbooks, regulations and information are all up to date and appropriately structured or protected. Do some research into other companies similar to yours, in the same fields, and what crisis they’ve weathered… how well, in what ways, with what tools?
  3. Get to know some key people in your local media, trade publications, or other venues, including bloggers, social media influencers, city councilors, etc. This is not an overnight thing and following someone on Twitter or connecting on Facebook is not “getting to know them.” You need to have someone who will take your call if a storm does hit and provide you a friendly, or at least neutral, opportunity to share your side of a story. Remember… sometimes it’s not an accusation or a lawsuit. Sometimes it’s a video posted to YouTube about your business practices or showing all the bit of grass your lawn company missed the last time they serviced an irate customer’s yard.

Take a deep breath… when that YouTube video about the missed grass hits, and someone forwards it to you in an email, what then? How do you know when, or if, you should take action? How long, how much, how far? Those are the next things we’ll cover on the blog. In the meantime… what other prep work would you recommend?

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