A lot of people think that the only time you need a PR team is when things go awry.
A crisis can happen at any moment and hopefully you have a PR team already in place that knows your business and its stories well enough to recover swiftly and effectively.
If you don’t have one in place, or if you’re curious on what sticky situations may arise, here are easy ways to help prevent a disaster from happening in the first place.
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.
For example, years ago I worked with an at-home diagnostic testing healthcare startup in the height of the Theranos scandal. Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos, a blood testing startup that ended up under scrutiny for severe inaccuracies in their technology, and was ultimately charged with several counts of fraud. This scandal was currently happening when we were about to launch at a huge tech conference in San Francisco.
Because there were so many potential similarities between the startup I worked for and Theranos, it was imperative that we figured out how to set ourselves apart and not get associated with Theranos. We were able to swiftly adjust our messaging and prepare answers to questions reporters might ask us. We had statements ready for anything that could have compared us to Theranos, with a clear value proposition about why we were not the same.
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 more tactful, respectful, and truly authoritative ways to handle this. It’s okay and important to address the competition, but do so without attacking them. Focus on talking about YOUR product and services and why it’s providing value.
For instance, GPS tracking devices designed to connect to your keys and wallet made a big splash years ago. The first player in the market we’ll call GPS Tracker A. However, the first CLEAR player in the market was GPS Tracker B. This is because GPS Tracker B put a lot more marketing resources forward at their time of launch, whereas GPS Tracker A was focused on the technology.
When this happened, GPS Tracker 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 GPS Tracker B and here’s why.” This is not the right move. In fact, if the reporter is unaware of a competitor, it may bring their attention to that company. 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.
There are times when things just happen that are out of control despite how many safeguards you put in place and best practices you follow. 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.
In 2015, I worked with a large publicly traded company who was issuing a material piece of news. It was big news and we pre-briefed 20+ journalists 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, I simply explained how the broken embargo was going to cause material damage to the company. I did not make demands or accuse them of breaking their trust and embargo. 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.
Many people don’t realize that there are only certain things you can do to “fix” an article once it’s published. In the U.S., 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.
However, I used to work with an executive who had many opinions and often went “off script”. 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.
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. The end result was 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.
It’s not only tacky, it’s inappropriate and insensitive. Reporters see right through using a crisis as a PR strategy. 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.
For example, the COVID-19 pandemic. Products and services came out of the woodwork when the pandemic hit. Whether it’s a device to be able to open doors in a sanitary way or some sort of product designed to keep safe (among other items I’ve seen marketed—albeit inappropriately—during the COVID-19 pandemic), ask: 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 try to finesse it in a way so it’s inauthentically applicable. Be mindful and show empathy. Reporters are also humans and may also be negatively impacted by whatever the crisis is.
Despite following all the typical PR safeguards above, crises can still happen. If you are already in crisis mode, here are some general tips on how to successfully navigate through it:
Any PR Professional will tell you that crises come with the territory in PR. However, no matter how buttoned up your strategies may be, there is always a margin for error that leads to impactful, and sometimes harmful, PR. Following best practices when it comes to avoiding activities that can lead to crisis and using the tips above to clean up after one, will help keep you collected and in control and hopefully on your way to smoother days.
Looking for more tips and tricks to boost your PR strategies and tactics? Click here to get some of the top advice other PR pros live by.