When’s a good time to talk about crisis PR?​

When a crisis strikes is not the time to look at implementing a comms plan, says crisis comms expert Gerry McCusker, who reveals the five events that signal when it's time to refresh your company's crisis comms strategies, in this guest post.

A corporate affairs pal of mine left me feeling a bit sheepish and, in all honesty, sort of shamed the other week.


Referencing a recent roller-coaster of a PR disaster, he sent me this link to an article by Australian Fin Review journo Joe Ashton: 

Clearly, Joe believes it’s inappropriate for PRs or brand experts to speak/spruik about PR disasters as they’re unfolding. It marks them out as “spivs”, he writes. And, because I’d just sent out my regular issues management newsletter (which used Dreamworld as subject line bait to grab topical attention), I felt my pal was softly ‘spivving’ me as well.

I’d had some coincidental coverage myself, where the journo (not me) had mentioned the theme park incident, alongside other contemporary PR disasters.

So, my pal’s email enlightened – and reminded – me that many ‘under -the-cosh’ clients could feel irritated by “spivs who spruik” as Joe Ashton kinda put it.

However, when an issue crops up in the public domain, that’s when I and other crisis communications specialists field media calls from journalists looking for comment, insight and recommendations.

Issues Rich

So this dilemma surfaces many more issues including:

  • The intent, impact and influence of shaming in business and media.
  • The value of offering critiques or recommendations when a crisis is raging.
  • Timing; and the difference between too soon and soon enough.
  • The role of journalists in soliciting expert (especially caustic) commentary.

Having blogged for a decade at PR disasters, I personally – when critiquing crisis or issues – try to focus on principles rather than people. I can understand the sensitivities for those under the cosh, particularly in instances where fatalities are involved; it’s a stressful time for all concerned.

I also recognise that the term ‘ambulance chasers’ could equally apply to PRs and reputation gurus as it does to lawyers.

Does a fine line exist? Can it be walked?

Crisis planning is like praying

A routine challenge for consultants (especially those offering issues and crisis management training) is that many organisations don’t like to think about rehearsing or testing their crisis capabilities and plans in peace time.

Like insurance premiums or night-time prayers, crisis drills are hard to commit to when you don’t seem to need them. But many clients take crises more seriously when another company gets blamed, flamed and shamed after an incident erupts.

Isn’t the best time to talk about crisis planning and process testing when the negative fall-out is laid bare for all – clients and consultants alike – to see?

There are five more events that should encourage companies to revisit their scenario planning and crisis simulation activities:

Staff changes

Anytime your organisation has a pertinent staff change – from the social media guys to C-suite changes – is a good time to review crisis training.

If the staff role under change would have a Comms, Topic Expert or Spokesperson role, you have to get your newbies up to speed with your crisis comms processes and plans. How developed is their online publishing nous? Do the get silo conventions?

When business or project partners change

For companies with joint-venture projects, it’s critical to test how your crisis capabilities work in concert with those of sister or partner companies. In crisis, it’s critical for multiple agencies to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Have you tested if and how you will share social messages, and look at approval processes to avoid mis-communication? Will crisis contagion poison stablemate brands?

When you plan a new launch

To build a new brand, many businesses want to leverage social media as a low-cost marketing propaganda tool. Yet failing to understand the vulnerability of a new brand to social trolls could land you in hot water. Use a trans-media comms simulation (using fake news, mock radio, TV and social posts) to poke at and test your new brand weak spots, and prepare rearguard actions to deal with disaster.

As social media evolves

Social media platforms are emerging, morphing and dying all the time. It’s some seven years since Twitter brought the first pics of the airplane crash on the Hudson River, yet we know many companies that have not configured their crisis plans to master any social silos, far less accommodate integrated publishing across all social and trans-media channels.

How quickly can your team originate and disseminate crisis content? How will you dominate search finds for the incident or disaster?

When you’re trending negatively

Effective analysis should reveal how audience sentiment and strength is tracking on company specific issues. When your social media monitoring shows increased interest and spread on an issue coverage, that’s a good time to test your response plans.

Having staff aware of the nature, speed and connectivity of online outrage, can help you better cope with an online crisis.

Crises can appear from anywhere, and effective communication and publishing simulations can help minimise the damage sustained (if done correctly). The only bad time to talk about crisis communications – ironically – is actually after the crisis has hit your business, brand or department.

Gerry McCusker is a reputation adviser at www.thedrill.com.au and the author of ‘Public Relations Disasters’ (book and blog).


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