By Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications
Crisis communications is a sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation. Crisis communications is aimed at raising awareness of a specific type of threat, the magnitude, outcomes, and specific behaviors to adopt to reduce the threat.
In 1989, Hennes Communications opened its doors as a full-service public relations agency. For 12 years, we took virtually everything that came in the door. From political campaigns and zoning issues to the creation of Ohio’s second Special Improvement District and facilitating a lunchtime speaker series, we did it all. And when the mayor of a large suburb said he wanted his own chamber of commerce, we worked on that, too.
In 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States gave us pause to reconsider our service offerings. For years, our good friend and adviser, Bob Smith, a partner in the Cleveland office of Cerity, told us to specialize, to go narrow and deep, to construct a brand around our efforts (which wasn’t easy to do since few companies outside the Fortune 1000 had a clue as to what constituted “crisis communications”) and to become the go-to team for this kind of work. Making a change like this was daunting. We had no role models, there were few books on the subject and, looking back, we had a lot to learn. As part of the change, we also made the transition from working with a few part-timers to assembling a full-time team comprised of seasoned professionals.
Fast-forward 20 years. After working with hundreds of clients around the world in virtually every industry sector possible, from solo entrepreneurs to billion-dollar Fortune 100 clients, we’ve learned lot. Borrowing from the Farmer’s Insurance ads, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
In particular, over the last two decades, we learned five great lessons about crisis communications:
Another thing we’ve noticed, especially over the last few years, is the sheer number of PR firms now claiming to offer crisis communications services. If a PR agency is already selling marketing plans, new product launches, social media management, brand building, employee engagement, investor relations and digital marketing, it’s a simple matter to add a crisis communications listing to an agency’s web page without having truly experienced professionals on staff to deliver that service.
The business model for most public relations firms is similar to that of law, accounting and architecture firms. The senior people bring the work in and push it down to less-experienced (and lower-paid) junior people. (By the way, that’s not the model you want when you’re facing a make-or-break crisis.) Certainly, there are exceptions to this. The largest PR firms in the country have dedicated crisis comm units dealing with crisis after crisis, continually honing their expertise. But for most PR firms, real crisis work is usually a very small percentage of their total billable hours. That means there’s little opportunity for the team to build the expertise crisis situations require.
So, if every PR firm claims to offer crisis communications, how do you make sure the firm you’re calling isn’t overstating its abilities? One place to start is with these seven questions:
Finally, remember: you can’t talk your way out of a crisis. Your communications need to be backed by action and commitment to follow through.
When you’re choosing a firm to be your crisis communications partner, choose one that can walk the talk – a firm that’s earned its reputation for knowing its way around a specialty very few communication firms have mastered.
Bruce Hennes is CEO of Hennes Communications, one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and crisis communications.