Kenneth Hitchner

by Kenneth Hitchner

Imagine this potential real-life scenario. You’re sitting at your desk, enjoying your morning cup of Joe, when you receive a phone call from a reporter at a major daily newspaper saying, “A devastating accident just took place at one of your plants and I hear there are casualties.”

First, take a deep breath. You’ve just sunk waist deep into a pile of reputation quicksand that has the potential to turn into a full-blown public relations crisis. How you respond could affect how your brand is viewed within the industry and outside of it. Once a reputation is tarnished, it can be a long, difficult struggle to regain your customers’ and the public’s trust.

The biggest public relations crisis so far this year was Boeing’s response to the tragedies of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 407 and Lion Air Flight 610. Rather than immediately taking responsibility and communicating with the public, Boeing avoided the situation and kept its planes flying. When a crisis of this magnitude strikes, you need to be proactive and tackle it head on to get ahead of the issue — not fall behind or look like you’re hiding from it. A public relations crisis situation also offers businesses an opportunity to illustrate its core values and concern for its customers.

Similar to Boeing’s handling of its PR crisis, Facebook’s data breach can teach us a thing or two about what not to do during a crisis. Facebook also didn’t immediately respond or issue a statement when the crisis first hit. Instead, the social networking site allowed others to tell the story for them. As a result, the ensuing media coverage opened Facebook up to skepticism, on top of overshadowing its voice and key messages.

How can you adequately prepare for a public relations crisis, to avoid backlash?

I cannot stress this enough: remain calm. Ask the reporter to explain exactly what’s going on, from the beginning of the story. You need to understand everything that has led the reporter to pick up the phone and call you. These situations often seemingly come out of nowhere and there’s no shame in asking questions to clarify the acquisitions. Do not offer any statements during the call, just collect the information and let the reporter know you will be looking into this and then responding.

Your thoughts will probably be racing, as you struggle to compile enough information to construct a coherent understanding of what’s going on. That is completely understandable, under the circumstances. Be cognizant of timing. Newspaper reporters work under hourly and daily deadlines.

To help guide you through the process, here are steps to follow to successfully overcome a PR crisis:

Develop a crisis communication plan: Every organization must have a crisis communication plan, before an emergency happens. A crisis communication plan includes a crisis communication strategy, in addition to an outline of procedures to prepare you for an emergency. Similar to a marketing plan, a crisis communications plan encompasses goals, target audiences, tactics and ways to measure results.

Your crisis communication plan needs to outline the following: Potential issues; spokesperson; crisis response team and roles — so you’re speaking with one voice; media strategy; real-time monitoring system to review sites on social media; and post-crisis analysis.

Examine the 5 Ws before you respond: Be methodical as you set out the facts and ask yourself: Who made this statement? Was it one person or multiple people? When did they say it? Was it today, last week, or last month? Where did they say it? At a press conference, to a colleague, or to a reporter? Why did they say it?

Everyone has different motivations for speaking out. Is this person trying to score political points in a close election race? Are they out to deliberately sabotage your brand? Or did they perhaps misspeak about something they don’t quite understand? Whatever the reason, lay out the facts as you know them.

Confer with trusted advisors: You’re battling a whirlwind of emotions and struggling to remain calm. Surround yourself with a small group of people whom you trust and outline the situation. Get their thoughts and input on the situation.

I recommend working with public relations professionals to help you craft an appropriate timeline and response. There are PR firms that specialize in effective crisis management. These types of firms can be ready with response teams that have crisis communicators on staff. They can respond to the media on your behalf as soon as a public relations crisis happens.

Outline how you’ll respond: If the allegations are false, lay out why they are false and back up your explanations with facts, not opinion. Make sure you stay “on message.” In other words, devise two or three key points before you call the reporter — and then repeat them again and again, to reinforce your side of the story. Remember that the reporter has no personal stake in this issue. He or she is just out to collect and report all sides of the story.

Most importantly, don’t come off as being “tone deaf.” Keep a pulse on what’s being said in the media and by your customers. Only then can you frame a response that’s appropriate and thoughtful because it won’t be created in a vacuum.

Issuing a press release or statement are effective ways to respond. The press release should state the issue, key messages and facts, as well as have a spokesperson quote. It also needs to answer who, what, when, where, and why.

Respond calmly and with facts: Be firm and factual, not defensive. You have every right to be angry if your business has been accused of unethical, even illegal, behavior. But keep your feelings private. Spokespeople who come off as defensive often appear as though they’re hiding something. Your goal is to outline the situation in a calm and rational way.

In closing, public relations debacles are bound to hit every business at some point. How you respond to criticism will speak volumes. Make sure it’s calm, well-thought-out, and based on facts, not opinion or emotion. A polished and reasoned response will reflect a poised, thoughtful, and honest brand.

Kenneth Hitchner is the director of content strategy at Clarksville Road-based marketing firm CMA. This piece originally appeared on the blog at

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