Avoiding spin while in the hot seat

Topics: Public Relations

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3 considerations for crisis communications

By Bob Conrad, Ph.D., APR

Two of the greatest threats during a crisis – the things that can make a negative situation worse – is the foreignness of working under intense, external pressure and organizational paralysis.


It’s safe to say that most PR professionals have a good sense of what needs to be done when others are suffering a crisis. From an outside perspective, it’s easy to diagnose what’s going wrong and what can be done about it. Public relations inherently implies we know what works well in building and maintaining relationships. In short, it’s what we do and what we’re good at.

PR professionals, despite being well-intentioned, are trained to achieve communications objectives with a variety of promotional strategies. We also tend to be nice people, at least outwardly.

But those traits are not necessarily beneficial when under intense pressure; in fact, niceties often backfire in highly charged situations. What is needed is calmness, genuineness and the acknowledgement that something may be wrong.

That last point, the admission of wrongdoing, is often foreign territory for the PR pro. Because we are trained to promote ourselves and our clients, handling negativity is frequently uncomfortable, especially when in the public spotlight. (Indeed, some of the best examples of crisis management come not from public relations professionals but from organizational leaders who excel at managing negative situations.)

To make matters worse, in the real world, most organizations want to be viewed as only doing good things. There is frequently an institutional sense of positivism that pervades businesses no matter the cost. While this is fine and necessary most days – and, in fact, most organizations are by design meant to be doing good things for people, the environment, business and society at large – if there is a culture of denial within the organization, when the shit hits the fan, it will be that much more devastating when wrongdoings are made public.

With this in mind, there are three things to keep in mind when working for a business or organization that may be experiencing a crisis.

1. Recognize when the wagons are being circled. Hints at defensiveness usually begin internally. These are red flags. An organization should instead focus on being transparent about its problems and how to fix them. Honestly answering pointed questions can help prevent defensiveness. Here are some: What went wrong? Is anyone (or a group) responsible? How and where can the CEO take responsibility? When BP CEO Tony Hayward expressed his frustration at his company’s disaster by saying he wanted his life back, his statement, among others, demonstrated self-centered defensiveness from the top, a posture that ended his career as CEO.

2. Openly acknowledge the dynamics at hand. Are people angry, sad, exasperated? Public acknowledgement of these emotions by leaders is frequently a first step toward resolution. Think New York City Mayor Giuliani after 9/11 or President Obama in his 2008 presidential acceptance speech. The latter wasn’t a crisis necessarily, but Obama masterfully commanded the dynamics of where the U.S. was politically when he won the election. Similarly, Giuliani rose from a questionable reputation pre-9/11 to become a highly regarded leader by the time his term ended.

3. Realize that reporters and others live to seek and expose organizational weak spots. While these may or may not be related to the crisis or controversy at hand, there’s a good chance that a number of deficiencies will be (unfairly) lumped together. Prepare for an onslaught of strange and hostile questions. There’s no obligation to address these all at once, but focusing on immediately fixing the most dire of problems will go a long way toward re-establishing credibility.­

Lastly, an unfortunate reality is that becoming adept in handling crisis situations usually means having experienced them. It’s not always a hard science, but with time, being able to genuinely relate to the public means having empathy and a great degree of awareness for how our actions, or the actions of our organizations, impact others.

For as much as a crisis can hurt, it is also an opportunity to make things better.

Bob Conrad learned about crises the hard way – and still learns. He can be reached at conradcommunicatons.com or on Twitter: @BobConrad.

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