When a PR crisis strikes, acting quickly is always better than not acting at all

When a public relations disaster hits, a good decision made on a Tuesday is better than a perfect one made on a Sunday, argues Weber Shandwick's Tom Horn.

Recently, Ava Lawler, managing director at Weber Shandwick contributed to a panel discussion among several industry specialists on the topic of crisis communications. They were asked: When crisis strikes, who should you call first – your communications team, or your lawyers?

The panel came to several conclusions, but most importantly, it was agreed that acting quickly is the most important way to mitigate any PR disaster you might happen to find on your hands.

Respond quickly

In a crisis, things move fast and the facts aren’t always clear. It’s tempting to hold back out of fear that responding could make things worse. However, acting quickly is your best defence.

It was a point that the panel discussed at length. All agreed that, even if you aren’t able to say much, responding quickly to show that you’re aware of, and acting on the situation is extremely important. The panel summed it up well in agreeing that: “A good decision made on a Tuesday is better than a perfect one made on a Sunday”.

The importance of planning

Another key point from the panel was to never underestimate the importance of planning. The age-old saying ‘A failure to plan is a plan to fail’ is certainly a truism when it comes to crisis comms. However, the panel highlighted that the real value of a proactive plan is much greater than simply avoiding failure.

Planning for crisis before crisis strikes opens opportunities. Ava highlighted that, as well as helping anticipate potential issues, a well-prepared crisis plan gives you the ability to quickly align your business and advisers around an issue.  It ensures that a lot of the preparatory work – assigning responsibilities, providing logistical resources, preparing spokespeople – is done, enabling you to focus on the issue at hand and responding with a considered and well-structured strategy.

However, a plan is only as effective as it is current. It should enable you to be nimble and agile in a crisis. But for it to do this effectively, you must review, trial and update it regularly to keep it relevant and your crisis management team ‘match fit’.

Commit to getting the right information

Information is critical to responding effectively in a crisis situation. But getting all the information takes time, a virtue that is in short supply in a crisis.

What is most important is compiling the facts – the hard information that can be used to accurately assess the situation, the risks it presents and begin framing the messages and strategy for response.

It’s hugely important to continually update and add to the information base you’re working from throughout the crisis. Social monitoring tools are critical to doing this from a conversational perspective, but it’s also important to have someone on-the-ground continuing to collect facts. This gives you the insight you need to continually review messages, and adapt them to address new issues as they develop.

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet – legal or comms – when it comes to handling a crisis scenario. The nature of the circumstances and the issue at hand, as well as the events that follow, dictate what’s needed to respond effectively. However, incorporating the above elements into your planning and thinking will put you in a strong position to take action should crisis strike.

Tom Horn is an associate director in Weber Shandwick Sydney’s Corporate practice


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