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5 PR Mistakes That Can Lead to Crisis And How to Prevent Them

businesses Apr 01, 2020

A lot of people think that the only time you need a Public Relations team is when things are going south. While this is not true (at all), a crisis still has the potential to happen. Sometimes it is preventable, and sometimes it’s not. The good news is that there are things you can do as a business owner to prevent certain crises from happening.

This blog post shares basic tips for dealing with crisis, but also preventable PR mistakes that have the potential to lead to crisis. 

Preventable Things You Can Do To Avoid Getting Into a Crisis:

  1. Understand Your Competitive Landscape. You are always better prepared if you know what's going on around you. By being in-tune with your competition and what’s happening in the newscycle and world, you have the opportunity to create messaging and a narrative that best serves you in a positive light. Your messaging and narrative is the backbone of every piece of communication for your company, internally and externally. 
    • Example: Years ago I worked with an at-home diagnostic testing healthcare startup in the height of the Theranos scandal. Elizabeth Holmes was the Founder of Theranos, a blood testing startup that ended up under scrutiny for severe inaccuracies in their technology, and ultimately charged with massive fraud. This scandal was currently happening when we were about to launch at a huge tech conference in San Francisco - and we were in the same industry. It was imperative that we figured out how to set ourselves apart and not get associated with Theranos. We got ahead of the situation with our messaging. We figured out answers to questions reporters might ask us. We had answers and statements ready for anything that could have compared us to Theranos, with a clear value proposition on why we were not the same. We even went as far to make sure that our blonde, female CEO did not wear a black turtleneck on stage, since that was the Theranos CEO’s same make-up. 
  2. Worry About Yourself -- Not Your Competition. You can’t control other people, but you can control yourself, what you put out into the world and how you react. If you have competition that is biting at your ankles, it’s normal to want to say to the media “we are better than X and here’s why!” However, there are good and bad ways to handle this. It’s important to address the competition without attacking them. Focus on talking about YOUR product and services and why it’s providing value.
    • Example: GPS tracking devices became huge several years back -- little devices that connected to a Bluetooth app on your smartphone, that you could put on your keys or wallet, to make sure you didn’t lose them! The first player in the market was  “Competitor A.” However, the first CLEAR player in the market, was "Competitor B". This is because Competitor B put a lot more marketing resources forward at their time of launch, whereas Competitor A was focused on the technology. When this happened, Competitor A was naturally upset, as they were first to market. The first instinct was to pitch every reporter with the message of “We are better than Competitor B and here’s why.” This is not the right move. It makes you look small and it is tacky. An alternative would be “This is who we are, this is our value prop, and this is what we are solving for.” Your only goal is to talk about your product. At the end of the day, if your product is superior, you don’t need to make any names.
  3. Be Kind, Transparent and Honest. Be Human. There are times when things just happen. When a reporter breaks an embargo, or chooses to write their own angle that portrays your company in a negative light. I’ve been in this situation a few times, and it’s been kindness, honesty and transparency that has gotten me (and my client) through it.
    • Example: In 2015, I worked with a large publicly traded company who was putting out a material piece of news. It was big news we pre-briefed 20+ journalists on, with a tight embargo. The embargo was important because if it was to get out earlier, it truly would cause material damage to the company. I was on a ski lift with my family when I got the text saying that one reporter chose to leak the story early and it was live. That was the longest chair lift ride of my life. In this situation, I called the reporter directly. I was not angry and explained how the broken embargo was going to cause material damage to the company. I did not demand. I acknowledged their right to speak freely, but calmly expressed the implications that their actions had on the businesses and asked if we could please work together to find a solution. Ultimately, the reporter removed the piece and apologized. 
  4. Don't Shoot from the Hip; Prepare Your Messaging and Stick To It. Many people don’t realize that there are only certain things you can do to “fix” an article once it’s published. In the USA, we exercise freedom of speech. Angles, supporting documents, quotes - it’s up to journalistic integrity. The only time it’s appropriate to go back to a reporter and ask to change anything in an article, is if it is factually incorrect. You might be thinking “what do I do if an article comes out about my company that is unfavorable?” Luckily, 99% of the time, you can prevent it. You control what you can control - your message. 
    • Example: I used to work with an executive who had many opinions and often overshared. In order to have a productive and clear conversation with a journalist, we worked together to create talking points for him that reflected his thoughts in a concise, clear and informative manner. How you deliver your message is very important - sometimes more important than what the message is! For the launch of his company, we lined up a media interview with a tech blog known for asking the hard questions. He was prepared and agreed to stick to his talking points. Unfortunately he did not. He went completely off script and back to shooting from the hip with all his opinions. This resulted in a very polarizing and negative piece for the company. He got very angry and wanted PR to go back and “fix it.” At this point it was too late. What you say matters and how you say it matters even more. Stay on message. Prepare. Focus on what you can control.
  5. Do NOT capitalize on a crisis. This is tacky. This is inappropriate. This can be harmful. Reporters see right through it. However, there are ways to communicate with the media during a crisis that are appropriate.
    • Do not use the Crisis as your hook or name what it is. Your job is to focus on what you are sharing, why you matter, what value you are providing and how you can help. Keyword, help.  
    • Example: Covid-19. It’s so new that I don't have any personal examples, so I will direct you to this amazing article written by TechCrunch, here. You have to have the paid account but here is the TL;RL: Are you adding value? Unless your news is truly innovative or groundbreaking, or your client has data or a solution to share that can genuinely help businesses, people and reporters, don't’ do it. Be mindful and show empathy. Reporters are also humans and may also be affected by whatever the crisis is. And my favorite quote from this article is “So much of PR is already tacky, don’t be that guy to spam a bunch of people during a mass crisis.

If you are already in Crisis, here are some general tips on how to move through it:

  1. If you don’t have anything to say - don’t. Determine what you need to react to and what you don’t. Just because every other company is reacting, doesn’t mean you need to as well. Don’t feel bad about it, especially if there is already a lot of noise out there. 
  2. Be helpful, not opportunistic. Can you add value right now? If you’re putting out content -- are you an industry expert, or are you just in the industry? 
  3. Focus on what you can control. This goes for what you say and what you do. Do not try to control what others are doing.
  4. Watch your tone. This means, the tone of your messaging, to the media and your customers. It’s easy to live in a state of panic when in crisis, but a calm and objective demeanor goes a long way.
  5. Stick to the facts. You can’t go wrong with objective facts. You can go wrong with heightened emotions. It’s also important to take into account other peoples’ emotions, especially if they are your customers in crisis. Humankind goes a long way. Think through the emotional aspect of what people are going through.
  6. Don't give advice, unless it is your expertise. If you are responding to something you’re not an expert in (say, medical or political), be careful not to give advice. Provide the facts, check your sources, but it’s not your job to tell people what to do. Your job is to provide them with accurate information.
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