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When Crisis Looms, Don’t Be That Guy! Start Communicating Early

This post is part of The PR Channel’s “Guest Blogger Series” featuring insights from Austin-area entrepreneurs and business leaders in areas complementary to PR (including marketing, sales, graphic design, web development and more).

By Susan Tull

As a PR professional, one of my least favorite calls from a client is the one that begins along the lines of, “Uh, we might have a little crisis in the works, we’ve got reporters requesting interviews for tomorrow morning’s paper and we need your help.”

Invariably when I get this call, my client is already neck-deep in managing an adverse business development such as: a reduction in workforce; an interruption in the delivery of services or products; environmental compliance issues; or getting sued by a media-mongering, litigious competitor.*

Don’t be the guy who makes that 11th hour call to his/her PR agency. The time to call your PR team is the moment you become aware that a problem might be developing, not once the problem exists. Call as soon as the executive team begins considering layoffs or your general counsel has received several demand letters, indicating that a legal battle could be brewing.

If you contact your PR team after you’ve received media calls from reporters who’ve already heard from disgruntled employees losing their jobs or who’ve read industry blog postings about your company’s new legal problems, you’re seriously behind the PR power curve. You’re in a defensive position, responding to a story that your detractors have framed badly. And now you’re scrambling to contain the damage.

In contrast, the PR team that’s alerted early can work with you in the days – or ideally, weeks – before the potential crisis unfolds, taking preemptive steps to minimize fallout. I typically do the following with my clients.

• Develop a crisis communications plan in case we need to implement it. The plan anticipates likely scenarios and how key audiences and competitors might react; it also outlines how the company will resolve the issue, communicate its course of action and protect its reputation. Think of the extra fees a crisis plan will entail as an insurance policy. Hope that you don’t have to use the plan; if you do, you’ll be glad you have it. The cost is almost always substantially less than losing and replacing a significant customer. Having a plan puts you in control, encourages rational versus emotional decision making while conveying organization stability.

• Step up direct communications with key audiences in advance of a possible negative development. Reach out to “pre-condition” customers, customer prospects and industry influencers via your blog, newsletter and/or email “update” from an appropriate company executive. If there’s definitely an issue on the horizon, provide selected information on the impending problem along with positive company news. Preemptive, direct communications reinforce positive perceptions about your business so if bad news hits shortly thereafter, key audiences are more likely to accept the bad with the good.

When I headed corporate communications for a technology company, we knew that a major business magazine was planning to run a negative piece about us, planted by a competitor. I scheduled my CEO to interview with the journalist to get our side of the story included; additionally, a few days before the magazine published, I had the CEO send a general business update to customers and prospects, highlighting recent company achievements, product introductions and recent, positive, national media coverage. Because the company periodically provided similar updates to customers, this communiqué appeared routine yet was strategically crafted and timed to help blunt the impact of what indeed turned out to be an unflattering article.

• Generate broader positive publicity about your organization in advance. Now is the time to issue those news releases about your new product or service offering, the industry star joining your management team and/or the company’s recently forged partnership with a high profile nonprofit. Your PR professional should be able to identify a few things happening with your business that are newsworthy and appropriate for publicizing. Also leverage and manage social media to further spread the word – not only through your own postings but also via your “followers” who can share your good news with their own online networks

When a potential crisis is looming, get an early start on communications planning and communicating with key audiences. You may still have to wage a communications campaign after the crisis erupts, but your organization is more likely to emerge intact or at least with minimal damage to its reputation and business.

*Communications and PR following catastrophic natural disasters, industrial accidents, data breaches and even terrorist attacks are less common and not the focus of this article.

Susan Tull is a former TV newscaster-turned-communications professional living in Austin, Texas. She has more than two decades of experience working with Fortune1000 companies, start-ups and nonprofits.

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