Crisis Communications: Planning Essential to Weather PR Storms

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.

There are accepted procedures in crisis management, said Craig Douglass of Craig Douglass Communications of Little Rock.

"In crisis management you go through a process," he said. And avoiding communications pitfalls is as important as implementing the right procedures.

"You avoid responding without as many facts as you can, given the situation," Douglass said. "Then when you are relatively sure that you have enough facts to adequately respond to the situation, then and only then do you want to move that information out as soon as possible and as comprehensively as responsible.

"What is the old quote: ‘Facts are stubborn things'? You want to get them. You want to know what the facts are of a situation," he said. "And once you are relatively sure you have enough to go with, then you move as quickly as possible."

Douglass said an organization's initial response should include the caveat "that we are learning more. As we learn more, we will share more."

In addition, a business or other entity must understand who comprises its audience, "stakeholders" in corporate parlance, or customers and clients.

With a large and highly visible public institution like Penn State, Douglass said, "there automatically is some scrutiny that is brought to bear when a crisis situation happens ... ."

In such cases, executives and communications professionals should "understand those who are personally affected by the situation," he said. When crises have legal ramifications, "you absolutely have to understand the legal ramifications first, and then you've got to move on that because this is about harm done to people."

Leslie Taylor is associate vice chancellor of communications and marketing for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. UAMS, like most public entities, has an emergency preparedness team, which, Taylor said, "is prepared for all kinds of things, from a nuclear disaster to earthquakes to patients injured in a train wreck."

But that's different from its crisis communications plan, a plan that UAMS has developed over time. One of the plan's highlights is accessibility.

"We have somebody on call all the time, 24/7," Taylor said. "You have to be accessible. If the media have follow-up questions you can't wait - if they call you at 10 - and call them back at 3 o'clock."

Another, she said, is honesty. "If you're not honest, you become the story. And that's a big mistake, because the media are going to find out.

"Hopefully, you're not doing something you need to cover up," Taylor said. "But the media are just doing their jobs, so you need to get the information out there quickly, and you need to get it out there accurately, because if you don't, somebody else will get it out there and it may not be accurate. It may not be the story you want portrayed."

Working for the Public
Taylor added that UAMS, a publicly funded institution, and its communications team "work for the media too. We work for the institution, certainly. And we try to portray the institution in the best light that we can and we think it's wonderful.

"But, at the same time, without the media, without the bloggers, without people calling us, we don't have jobs. And we work for them, and part of our job is to get accurate information out there."

UAMS has another constituency to which it must be accountable: the public. In communicating bad news - or any news - Taylor said, "you also have to look at it from the perspective of the person reading or watching the interview. What are they going to think? So that's why it's really important to get the accurate information out there."

If a business or other organization determines that it's made a mistake and straightforwardly - and quickly - acknowledges the error, the public can be forgiving, Douglass said.

"It gives you a sense of credibility ..., that you can be trusted. And it does ultimately come down to trustworthiness," he said.

"Corporations can be forever damaged if they just trickle little things out as they are forced to. So the more information you can share and the quicker you share it, the public in general and customers in particular appreciate that candidness," Douglass said.

Not Just a River in Egypt
Asked why organizations deny, stonewall and, sometimes, straight out lie after they've determined they've made errors, Frank Cox of Hendrix had a one-word answer: "Fear."

He elaborated:

"People are afraid of the consequences of the truth when in fact the consequences of not telling the truth are usually much, much greater. If something happened or it was bad news, I would rather put it out there and describe how we were going to deal with it."

Taylor, of UAMS, is pragmatic.

"I just think the best thing is to be honest and get the information out there. I am not saying you have to put out a press release saying, ‘Look, we messed up.' But at the same time, it's better to control the message, and you can't control the message if you try to sweep it under a rug," she said.

Taylor added: "And if you don't tell the truth, it's always going to come back, and then it's going to be a whole lot worse."

See also:

Tips on creating a crisis communications plan.

On creating an application for a crisis communications plan.

Some things communications professionals advise saying instead of "no comment."