Public Relations: Response to crisis can make or break a reputation

Contributing ColumnistJune 27, 2011 

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional and principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations.

Bad things happen to people and organizations, but how you respond during a crisis can save and enhance your reputation. You'll find that the response often has more impact on your reputation than the event that precipitated the crisis.

So is your business prepared to communicate effectively during a crisis? It needs to be. With today's 24/7 media cycles and social media, you need a crisis plan. Recent events like the scandal leading to the resignation of U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) illustrate how fast a crisis can spiral out of control without a proper plan.

Preparation is key to ensuring that the way you react to and handle a crisis leads to a positive outcome. It is very important to have a written plan in place and staff trained before a crisis happens, because you'll lack the time to do so once one happens. Having a crisis communications plan serves as an adjustable blueprint for any crisis situation. This blueprint should have:

■ A crisis response team identified and trained. That includes a spokesperson.

■ A list of key stakeholders to communicate with directly.

■ A list of anticipated scenarios using the so-called SWOT analysis that looks at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

■ Holding statements, which can be used immediately after a crisis breaks.

■ Notification systems such as phone trees or email and text messaging groups. You should have more than one channel to reach people.

In general, you need to take steps to immediately respond during a crisis. You need to take charge of the situation, understand the circumstances, define the problem, rank options, and then communicate, communicate, communicate.

The challenge is to complete these steps as quickly as possible — within the first two hours of a crisis whenever feasible. In this age of instant information provided by social media, the window of crisis reaction has shortened. Think of how quickly social media can escalate crises in recent cases such as Weiner's or the McDonald's Twitter photo hoax that showed a racially offensive sign posted on a door of a location.

Here are some no-nonsense tips for handling a crisis:

Do:

■ Tell the truth

■ Release only confirmed facts

■ Show concern

■ Defuse negatives

■ Remain calm

■ Provide newsworthy updates

McDonald's handled its situation well. The restaurant giant's social media team responded to the situation quickly, releasing only the facts that it was a hoax and they did not know who started it. They then transitioned into defusing negatives by reconfirming their commitment to diversity on both sides of the counter and keeping their cool in a highly charged environment. This happened over a weekend and the story was dead by mid-week.

Don't:

■ Speculate

■ Overstate or understate

■ Talk "off the record"

■ Be thrown by hostile questions

■ Give an exclusive to one journalist

■ Place blame on someone else

The Weinergate sexting scandal offered evidence of more than one don't. His first response was to place the blame elsewhere, and then he followed up with stalling tactics and speculation and overstatement of the facts in the case.

What can we learn from these two crises? Let's answer that in the form of a question. What do you remember better — McDonald's or Weiner? Exactly. It's how you handle the crisis from the start that affects how it ends.

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional specializing in small businesses and is principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations. She proudly called Lexington home, but she now lives in North Carolina. She can be reached at ann@mindthegappr.com, or follow her on Twitter at @annvandenhurk.

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