Four Powerful Tips to Avoid a PR Nightmare
I spent parts of last Thursday and Friday working with two clients who had situations on their hands that could have had damaging consequences if they weren't handled properly in the news media. I can't get into details because of privacy reasons, but let's just say both issues were pretty touchy.
I always feel gratified when I do issues management consulting, because I know how scary it has to be for organizations. The fear of having an issue explode and show up on the front of the newspaper, or leading the 6:00 news on TV is pretty hard for most business leaders to take.
While every case is different, they have enough in common that I've been able to find four key points to keep in mind if you're ever in the same situation.
I’m going to give you some suggestions on how to handle a touchy subject in a moment, but the best advice I can give if you have a sensitive matter on you hands is to get help.
A professional communicator who has a good handle on what you should say and perhaps more importantly, what you shouldn’t say is worth their weight in gold. Whether you seek the services of a public relations agency, or a sole practitioner such as me, money spent on getting their advice will be worth it. If you’re concerned about the price that’s being charged by somebody who knows what they’re doing, you won’t believe the cost of using somebody who charges a lot less, or doing it by yourself. Saving paying a professional a few dollars could cost you immeasurably if all hell breaks loose.
Ask people you know for recommendations, check the internet for those specializing in the field, and ask about work they’ve done in other similar situations, along with references.
Legal help, although likely more expensive, can be invaluable too. Personnel matters are almost always ones that require the services of a lawyer. You can save some money by getting your messaging drafted yourself and then running it past a lawyer, or talking to a lawyer briefly first to find out what you can and can’t say and then drafting your messages.
Decide on a Plan of Action
Different situations require different tactics. One size doesn’t fit all. You need to decide how you’re going to approach an issue.
Will you prepare a statement and wait for the media to call? This can be a good approach to deal with situations where something has happened, you’ve informed people internally, but don’t want to share the information with the news media yet. Having something prepared and ready to go when the phone starts ringing isn’t a bad way to go. If nobody from the media calls, then you’ve saved yourself a lot of grief. Remember, it’s not really news until a reporter thinks it is and contacts you.
Perhaps you’ve decided you want to release information, so you need to decide if you’ll just issue a prepared statement and not make any further comments. That can also work, but you need to understand the media will still ask questions, or ask you to “say the same thing on tape.”
You also could jump in with both feet and draft a news release, decide who your spokesperson will be and prepare to take questions from the media. This is the pr version of the “full meal deal” and it can work very well as long as you’re prepared, especially to take questions from the news media.
Any of these approaches can work, but all three also have their drawbacks. You need to decide what will work best for you.
Figure Out How Much to Say
Keep in mind that you don’t need to tell the media the whole story. You don’t need to get into specific reasons for making a personnel decision as an example, or a number of other operational issues. You’re well within your rights to announce the decision you’ve made, with some vague reasons why, but you don’t need to get too specific.
As an example, saying you’ve decided to terminate your Chief Financial Officer after an investigation uncovered some financial irregularities may be sufficient. You don’t need to get into how much was taken, how it was done, how you discovered it and so on. You may want to be fully transparent and that’s fine, but the more information you plan to release, the more you increase the risk of saying something that will concern those close to the situation, or that you could get sued for.
It’s the job of a good reporter to ask questions to get information their audience would be interested in. It’s the job of media spokespeople to say what you they planned to say and not get into areas where they provide information that could cause a problem. Understanding and respecting the job the media does, while taking your role as a spokesperson seriously is fundamental.
Remember Your Most Important Audiences
I’ve seen some organizations that have done a lot of things right with the media on sensitive issues, but did a poor job with their employees and other stakeholders.
If you have an issue that’s going to hit the media, the first people you should think about informing are your employees and outside stakeholders that you deal with on a regular basis.
Employees are generally smarter and know what’s going on more than many managers suspect. Be honest with them (as much as possible) and share the information internally before they read about in on Twitter or see it on TV.
Think about other organizations you work with and try, as much as possible, to give them a heads up. It may be a good idea to compose a short email to let them know you’ll be releasing information to the media about an internal issue, but also letting them know you have the situation fully in hand and it’s business as usual. A short phone call to give your most important stakeholders a heads up is a great idea and very much appreciated. It allows them to feel like an insider and they always appreciate that.
Taking some time after the announcement is made to monitor traditional media and social media to see what’s being said and how the information is being received is a great idea too.
Sharing bad news is never easy, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. How you handle it will decide how well you sleep at night.
Need to Talk?
If you have a potential public relations issue you need to talk to me about, just drop me an email and I would be happy to get back to you right away.