PR lessons from managing crises

10 crucial communication credos

The audience was all ears April 6 at PRSA Houston’s lunch meeting featuring Regester Larkin crisis-management expert Kate Brader. Her fact-filled presentation was built around 10 rules for communicators. Here are the first five:

1. Think the unthinkable.

  • Be expansive in your thinking and preparedness.
  • “Playback” responses can quickly be exposed as inadequate.
  • Train your leaders and communicators to be ready for anything.
  • Think through all the risks with imagination, not restraint.

2. Crises are never managed in a vacuum.

A major crisis rarely affects just one organization. Yet, in Regester Larkin’s 2015 survey of organizations worldwide, only 67 percent discussed crisis preparation with key partners and suppliers, and even fewer—27 percent—involved key suppliers in their crisis exercises.

“There’s nothing wrong with being prepared; the Boy Scouts have a 150-year history of doing that,” Brader said.

Lessons:

  • Contractual terms may not reflect how stakeholders will see responsibility and accountability.
  • Understand and map the complex stakeholder mix in which the crisis is playing out—get to know them in “peacetime.”

3. Looking after victims is the key to crisis response.

Crises are always seen through the eyes of the victims.

Brader quoted a colleague, also attending the luncheon: “People will forgive you for what happened, but they will never forgive you if you responded inappropriately.”

Lessons:

  • Crises are remembered for how the situation was managed as much as for what happened in the first place.
  • Even nonphysical crises can have victims: employees, customers and investors, for example.

4. Crisis recovery is about real change.

Most major crises mean major change.

“If something goes so terribly wrong in an organization, it needs to be fixed and seen to be fixed,” she said. “As a communicator, your job is to tell your leaders how your organization is perceived—and how your leaders and spokesperson are perceived.”

Lesson:

Change comes whether designed internally or by politicians and regulators. It is better to get “on the front foot” and demonstrate a sense of control.

5. The apology remains a stumbling block.

“Elton John was right: ‘Sorry’ is the hardest word,” said Brader. “Organizations need to get comfortable with how to say ‘Sorry.’”

Watch for Brader’s final five lessons in my next blog . . . .