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  • Writer's pictureKirk Dorn

Top Tips for Managing a PR Crisis

Sometimes, bad things happen to good companies. Even the best can’t always avoid a crisis – whether it’s man-made or a natural disaster.

But you can make a bad situation better by taking the right steps. That’s where I come in.

One of the services we offer at Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy is crisis management, guiding a business or social agency or individual through a negative event. We are experts in helping people and companies identify the problem, take steps toward defraying it, devise a strategy to get through tough times and come out healthy at the other end.

It’s hard work, and it often isn’t fun – for all sides. But dealing head-on with a crisis is important, and a lot smarter than the alternative.

Before we get into the steps of handling these challenges, let’s define what we’re talking about. There really are two kinds of crises:

  • A negative-event situation. This can be a train derailment, a natural disaster, an incident of violence – any unforeseen episode of trouble. For example, we at Ceisler are currently helping a large energy company after a gas leak explosion in Ohio in February.

  • A reputational-damage situation. This involves crises created by, say, criminal or ethical misbehavior by a company executive. Alas, these cases are in the news far too often these days – in government, industry, show business and sports.

Of course, the first kind of problem can spill into the second if the executive in charge makes a poor decision or an ill-advised statement. A small negative can balloon if matters are mishandled at the top.

Sometimes, there’s a perception when I’m called in that I can make the problem disappear. Hey, I’m good, but I’m no magician. If something really happened, it has to be dealt with.

Or, an occasional client will see me as being like a character from the TV program “Scandal.” Well, it’s a fine show, but it’s way over the top. Life can be thorny, but it’s rarely that dramatic.

Like most of television, however, a crisis can have a happy ending. But only if you take the right steps.

It starts by doing the right thing. And doing it quickly. If there are allegations that someone in a position of authority did something improper, my first word of advice is that the person has to step aside from the scene – a kind of self-suspension or one imposed by the board of directors while a full investigation is conducted.

That’s necessary to send the right message to the work force. And, if the story is already in the media, it sends the right message to the public. You are not convicting the person, but you are suspending until the facts are determined.

I’ve worked cases for Ceisler Media where there has been a reluctance to do this when the person accused of wrongdoing is popular with the board. I have to tell them to put their personal affection aside and do what’s right for the company.

By the way, sometimes the person accused is not guilty. If the accused can make a compelling argument of that innocence we can help the individual and the organization take on the most credible defensive posture. But those cases represent a minority. Most often, we are protecting an organization’s reputation.

Once we had a case where the leader of a religious congregation was accused of having an inappropriate adult relationship with a congregant. The clergyman was beloved, but he had to be suspended and it had to be investigated. Many members of the congregation opposed the move. But in the end, it became clear the clergyman’s actions made it impossible for him to return to his job.

If the problem is more rampant than one person at the top of the organization, you need to do more. You need to have someone with an impeccable reputation come from the outside and investigate. That ensures the community that the company is taking the issue seriously.

Once those initial moves are made, there’s a basic step-by-step process to follow:

1) Establish a core team to handle the situation. This should include the CEO (assuming that the CEO isn’t the problem), one or two members or the board of directors and – if the company has one – the communications director. And let us help.

When that gas line burst in Ohio, Ceisler Media Managing Director Kurt Knaus and Senior Associate Caitlin O’Connor went to the scene with top energy company officials to develop a strategy and address the concerned community. They stayed there for several weeks, talking with citizens and reporters.

2) Do your fact finding. What went wrong? What better decisions might have been made? Who is handling what issue? Where do we go from here? Decide what needs to be done and run it through the prism of what is ethical and legal.

3) To the extent you can, try to take your emotions out of your dealings. I know that isn’t easy, and that’s why a crisis communications manager like me is so important. When I walk in, I’m not as personally invested. I can better see the scope of things without getting caught in the emotion. Sometimes I have to remind clients to breathe throughout the process.

The biggest fear clients often have is the media. Not that long ago, I was often asked, ‘How do we keep this out of the media?’ These days, with the prevalence of social media, chances are good that employees have already posted Facebook messages before I even come through the door.

Here’s the top rule in dealing with the media and public: Everything you say has to be true. It really is the case that the cover-up can be worse than the crime. That doesn’t mean you have to disclose everything behind the scenes, but be honest in what you tell people.

You should always have a unified message. Even if the board of directors splits 4-3 on an issue, everyone has to be on the same page in public. I’ve seen situations where a lone wolf within a company writes an opposing-viewpoint op-ed. That can blow up the entire strategy.

And, of course, you have to honestly attack the problem. Whatever went wrong, you need to aggressively work to fix it and keep public apprised of your progress. Show people your commitment to never allow it to happen again. The key is to communicate that you're doing everything possible to do the best.

There’s typically a crisis cycle. Unfortunately, you do need to bottom out before you can recover. But if you do the right thing and effectively communicate your message, you can win people’s confidence. And in some cases, you're actually more attuned to the need to promote yourself positively going forward.


Kirk Dorn is Senior Director at Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office and an expert in crisis management.


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