Teri O'Neal

No one likes to think about the worst. Crisis communication planning remains a topic that many businesses and organizations would rather not think about when it is not needed. At its core, the perception of crisis communications screams negativity and causes people to think about catastrophic disasters. The response for most, albeit the wrong answer, typically is to bury one’s head in the sand.

However, crisis communications boils down to two basic principles: adequate planning and building relationships. Three mantras in a crisis all surround the plan and the people: prepare for the worst, hope for the best and expect the unexpected.

Prepare for the worst

  1. Know and understand your business and any possible threats against it.
  2. Develop relationships with those media and organizational allies, which could assist you in an emergency.
  3. Identify the spokespeople, who will control the message during a crisis.
  4. Prepare your virtual “go bag.” Gather all social media and website password and logins, as well as any standard operating procedures for efficiency in a crisis.

Hope for the best

  1. Develop the key messaging necessary to allow spokespeople and staff to speak with one voice about the company, accentuating the positive and allowing potentially negative questions to circle back to a key message.
  2. Train your staff on delivering exceptional interviews and teaching the concept of bridging and redirection. This can benefit your organization in good times and bad.
  3. Build trust by ensuring you circle the wagons immediately during a crisis to allow your internal audience, the staff, know they remain the priority.

Expect the unexpected

  1. Remain flexible in your plan to allow for quick-turn changes. A crisis rarely looks the same twice, so leave room in your plan to adjust, when needed.
  2. Anticipate a fluid situation, which often lasts longer than expected. Back up your plans to allow for a longer situation. Avoid burnout, if possible!
  3. During a crisis, communicate early and often. If you leave a void, expect your adversaries to fill it.

Post-event evaluation remains an essential main component of a solid crisis communications plan, though often is the component left undone. The evaluation plan is usually placed boldly at the end of the plan awaiting execution. Most practitioners and business owners, ready to put the negative event behind them, avoid it like the plague.

Ideally, conducting a hot wash of the event and the application of the plan immediately following the event leads to key adjustments to improve the execution. Take the time to assemble the team, even the external partners, if possible, to discuss the execution and brainstorm ideas to make it better for the future.

Our work with clients allows us to assist in planning for the unknown and developing key relationships with people and organizations, which ultimately leads to better responses during a negative event while managing crisis PR effectively.

What tools do you have in your crisis communications toolbox? Share with us by commenting below.

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A. Bright Idea PRSA Award

A. Bright Idea celebrates industry recognition for its work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for National Prescription Drug Take Back Day with a Public Relations Society of America National Capital Chapter Thoth Award for integrated communications.

“We’re so honored to be working with the DEA in promoting this important national initiative for collecting unused, unwanted and expired prescription medications, helping to keep them off the streets and out of the hands of our youth” says A. Bright Idea President, Anita A. Brightman. “With the results in for the fifth Take Back Day, we know that over two million pounds of prescription drugs have been collected by the DEA across the country. We’re proud that our integrated approach to this campaign along with the DEA Public Affairs Office, including public relations, graphic design, interactive and advertising services has supported this important effort.”

A. Bright Idea supports the DEA specifically with media planning and placement for each event, including national placements with the NBC Today Show, Good Morning America, AARP, Facebook and USA Today, as well as regional placements in all major markets, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Houston.

The PRSA National Capital Chapter Thoth Award recognizes public relations and communications excellence in campaigns and individual tactics, which clearly demonstrate the four tiers of effective public relations: research, planning, implementation and evaluation.

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The Public Relations Society of America recently released the modern definition of public relations (PR) as:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

A simple and to the point statement, the definition compacts an in-depth meaning about what PR really is and why it’s important. We’ve taken the definition and broken it down to really delve into the specific parts and how they shape this definition.

“Strategic communication process”

Let’s start with “strategic” or strategy – a plan of action designed to achieve a vision. No matter the task in PR, the question should always be “is it strategic?” A communication piece or tactic in and of itself is not the strategy. For example, a client or internal audience tells you they want a feature article in a lifestyle magazine touting a very industry-specific new product. A strategic approach considers first the overall vision of promoting the new product. This includes considering the target audience and in this case, you can more directly achieve the vision by focusing your actions toward trade publications that reach a more targeted, action-oriented audience. That’s a strategic move.

“Communication process”

Then we move to the “communication process” part of this first phrase. It’s not as simple as just getting your message out there. PRSA recommends four steps: research, planning, implementation and evaluation. Each step allows for the development and implementation of key messages, tools and tactics that are specific to each objective and target audience, geared toward the end goal, and over all, measurable.

“Builds mutually beneficial relationships”

The true foundation of public relations is in building relationships, but the new definition takes this a step further in promising PR efforts to build relationships that benefit both the organization and its publics. The benefit to the organization is the resulting response, action or new loyalty from its publics, and the benefit to the publics is the product or service received from the organization. PRSA takes its code of ethics seriously and insists its members and accredited professionals do the same. If the relationship isn’t mutually beneficial (just going through the motions) then the strategic efforts should be reconsidered.

“Publics”

Also known as stakeholders, stockholders, target audiences or supporters, “publics” refers to any and all people or groups receiving information from the organization. These “publics” are essential because the way they receive and perceive information shapes the way they embrace, actively support, deny or protest the organization.

The general public is often mistaken as a catch-all public. Often, communication tools are chosen based on what the organization feels comfortable with or wants to try rather than communicating through channels that reach their audience. For example, if your public relations campaign focuses on adults over age 60 and you are disseminating information via social media, your “publics” will likely not receive the information. Furthermore, if they do receive the message, they may perceive that you are trying to reach a younger demographic and therefore not embrace or support your efforts because they’ll mistakenly perceive the call-to-action isn’t applicable to them.

Despite the changing tools, trends and how people consume information, this new, modern definition of PR remains true to the foundation of communicating and effectively disseminating information.