Crisis Communications: Planning Essential to Weather PR Storms

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 12:00 am  

No organization wants to face a Penn State-magnitude scandal, but a crisis communications plan can help an organization keep a bad situation from getting worse.

"If there is a misstep that is not handled properly, you can set a company back 20 years," said Frank Cox, executive vice president and chief communications officer at Hendrix College in Conway and a longtime ad man.

Some scandals lie beyond the power of public relations to resolve, PR experts say, and Penn State may be one of them.

As Keith Trivitt and Arthur Yann recently wrote for the website of the Public Relations Society of America:

"Every day, public relations professionals help people understand the reasons why an organization says and does the things it says and does.

"But one thing public relations professionals cannot help people understand, and should never have to, are an organization's moral and legal failings." Yann is the PRSA's vice president for public relations, and Keith Trivitt is the organization's associate director for public relations.

Rosanna Fiske, the chief executive officer of the PRSA, told Arkansas Business that most manmade communications crises are an issue of "poor management. It's an issue that really speaks to the leadership or the management of the organization.

"As a result, you start hearing, ‘Oh, that's a PR nightmare. That's a PR disaster.' It's not a PR disaster. It's a management disaster."

However, most crises faced by companies and other organizations can be mitigated through the use of a solid crisis communications plan, longtime advertising, public relations and communications professionals agreed.

Unfortunately, they said, they don't see many organizations with such plans. "I think it's the exception, not the rule," said Martin Thoma, a principal in Thoma Thoma of Little Rock, a brand marketing firm. "It's probably even rarer that they do any rehearsal or drills."

Get the Facts
Crises faced by businesses and other organizations can be almost anything, including natural disasters: tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes. But they also include the human-caused crises that generate damaging publicity: product recalls, employee deaths on the job, toxic spills, worker fraud.

In addition, there is crisis management and then there's crisis communications, an element of crisis management.



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