Innocent until proven guilty might hold up in the court of law, but the court of public opinion tends to play by hazier rules.
From celebrity scandals to business blunders, crisis communication is a cornerstone of public relations. It’s a specialty of PR dealing with protecting reputation, because a blow to the image of a business or public figure often has real financial implications on the bottom line.
But what are the necessary steps to take in the face of scrutiny? And what are the most common missteps? Four public relations executives help make sense of crisis management.
The key to an effective crisis communication strategy is knowing when to act, and experts advise a wait-and-see approach in the very beginning.
“There’s a lot of pressure to react quickly. But you have to anticipate the response from naysayers and to plan a few steps in advance,” said Ben Kaplan, founder and CEO of Top Agency, a global agency handling crises ranging from cybersecurity breaches to food recalls.
“You have to evaluate: ‘Is this story going to die or is this going to continue to take off?’” said Lauren Jennings, executive vice president and crisis communications strategist for Alison Brod Marketing and Communications, which manages PR for a host of household brand names such as L’Oréal and Panera. “The red flag alert for us is when the narrative direction has the potential to have an immediate impact on sales.”
If outrage continues to spiral, it is important to set the record straight as soon as possible, rather than waiting to play defense. “Once the story is out there it’s much harder to control,” said Jennings. “If you do go out with a statement, you have to assume there’s going to be a news cycle around that narrative, (so) it has to be worth it to get the right story out there.”
Rather than playing defense, anyone facing backlash should be proactive in addressing controversy, said Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of Red Banyan, a firm specializing in crisis PR. “You can’t sit back and just listen or watch, you have to become an active participant in the discussions where (they) are happening.”
Disapproval tends to have a finite life cycle, according to experts, and the goal for public figures or corporations under fire is to make the cycle as short as possible.
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