Crisis Communication: How to Handle a Crisis from a PR Perspective

Yesterday I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Texas Public Relations Association Leadership Day and Gala, thanks to receiving the Joe Riordan Scholarship for students.

The day consisted of many networking opportunities, keynote speakers, several breakout sessions, and an awards ceremony and gala.

One of the breakout sessions that interested me most was a "Crisis Communications Workshop for Students/Young Professionals," hosted by Jack Barnett, APR, Southern Union Company, and Keith R. Schmidt, APR, Newfield Exploration Company.

The session began with an exploration of what crisis communication entails and some practical advice for young professionals entering the public relations field. The session concluded with a hands-on activity where the session hosts outlined a crisis situation and audience teams were challenged to propose a plan of action. Below are some of the key learning points I gained from attending the session.

What is a Crisis?
A crisis is a major, unpredictable event. It is an event or situation that poses risk to a company’s or organization’s reputation.

So, if it’s just one event, why does it matter? Well, because one event can make a lasting impression on your overall reputation. Think back to the Exxon Valdez incident, many people still equate Exxon with oil spill.

How to Handle a Crisis in a Business or Organization:
The best way to handle a crisis in a business or organization is communication, of course. Ideally businesses and organizations will have a crisis plan outlined before a crisis even occurs. For every crisis there is planning that occurs before, moderation of the event during, and a debriefing and adjusting period afterwards.

Before the Crisis – Create a Plan
Every business or organization should have a crisis communication plan - universities, government organizations, and even non-profits. This plan should consist of several key features including: identifying potential or likely crisis’ that may occur (the “what ifs” - these may be obvious based on your industry); choose a company spokesperson, identify who will be the face of the company for both the media and the internal staff; create a list of tasks to be initiated by the public relations team; outline and develop talking points that can be adjusted as the situation changes. Finally, it is important to practice the plan, if not physically, then at least do a mental run-through.

The Organization’s Role during the Crisis
  • Tell the truth: reporters and community members WILL find out that you lied and things will get worse
  • Show empathy: especially if employees were injured during the crisis, you must show empathy and respect for the families and concerned community members 
  • Demonstrate leadership: be available to answer questions, but set your ground rules
  • Maintain internal communication: communication among employees and staff does not always flow easily, especially when high stress situations occur; the organization must maintain clear communication using available channels to keep employees and staff “on the same page”
Working with the Media – Do’s and Don’ts
Remember that reporters can be crucial in the way your organization’s reputation is affected by the crisis. They are an excellent source to work with in handling the issues.  As long as you’re upfront, they will work with you. The reporters will likely become upset if you’re not communicating openly.
  • Do keep talking points in your pocket to avoid speaking on the spot
  • Do talk “through” the reporters; your company should emerge as the expert in the matter
  • Do know the company’s record – have similar events happened before?
  • Do tell the truth – no matter what
  • Do NOT speculate on any facts; remember, nothing is off the record
  • Do NOT ignore the situation; this will only make things worse
The Public Relations Team Must Pay Special Attention to:
The holding statement: who will speak to the press? Do you need approval to release statements?
The facts: confirm the who, what, where, when, why throughout the event, updating as necessary
Is travel to the site necessary, and who does it?

Resolve the Crisis
Verify all the information: just how bad are the effects?
Continue to communicate and develop answers
Consider creating a "joint information center," - for employees, concerned citizens, and journalists
Finally: update, communicate, repeat

After discussing the components of a crisis communication plan, Barnett and Schmidt put us to the test. They split the audience into two groups, each representing a company that had just experienced a crisis. Each team had about 17 minutes to review the impact and effects of the crisis, choose a company spokesperson, develop a list of things that must be done from a PR standpoint, develop talking points, and adjust the talking points as the situation changed.

About 5 minutes into the exercise, we were informed that our company president (me) just had a heart attack. Now that our spokesperson was out of the picture, we had to choose a new spokesperson, update her on the talking points, and develop a way to inform the media about why our company president would not be available at the press conference.

A few minutes later, we were informed that two employees had died during the crisis. As a PR team, we had to decide how to announce the deaths of the employees, whether or not to state their names, to tell their families, etc..When our spokesperson stood up to deliver the company's statement, audience members acted as journalists, asking questions and seeking facts.

This hands-on experience gave me a real look into what it might be like to face a crisis in a company or organization, what an exciting workshop! I really learned a lot and am thankful to Schmidt and Barnett for the fun crisis communication challenge. Click here to read the full scenario, I think it could be a great exercise for a communication course or any public relations/corporate communication workshop.

A little bit more on the workshop hosts:
Jack Barnett, APR, is director of external affairs for Southern Union Company, a diversified natural gas company. He has 20 years of experience in media relations and communications for the energy industry and previously has worked as a reporter at newspapers in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Keith Schmidt, APR, currently is senior communications coordinator at Newfield Exploration Company in Houston. In this position, he implemented a new employee communications program, works with the media and formalized crisis communications training at the company. He also developed a community outreach program for company expansion of operations in the Mid-Continent.

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