When things go right, publicity and PR are seen as unimportant. When things go wrong, people “delegate” communication immediately to the PR folks, shirking any responsibility and accountability. Invariably, without sufficient information on hand, the poor PR folks fail to communicate effectively with the media and the public, and the image and reputation of the company goes down the drain.

Actions: Crisis preparedness tips from the insider

What are some mindset changes and preparation for an organization so that if and when a crisis strikes, everything can still run like clockwork, the right messages relayed to the media and the public, and corporate reputation and trust can be retained, or even enhanced?

1) Crisis management (CM) program. You got one yet? If you got one, do you put it to the test at least once a year? Without a CM program, the best an official spokesperson (or anyone) can muster is “no comment” – the bane of good publicity and corporate reputation. The CM program must be coupled with a frequent media training schedule for all scheduled and unscheduled spokespersons, so that everyone can stay informed and refreshed on how best to talk to the media. A CM program must be audited and tweaked periodically, and regular crisis simulations should be carried out to test if employees are aware or capable of handling potential crises. The CM program should describe:

  • WHO should talk about a topic?
  • WHEN to communicate (media and stakeholders)?
  • WHAT are the tools (e.g. forms, databases, etc)?
  • WHERE to hold events, retrieve materials, and so on?
  • WHY answer speculated questions in particular ways?
  • HOW to handle specific or possible disasters or crises?

2) PR practitioners are NOT spin doctors. Many executives, including senior ones, imagine PR practitioners as “spin doctors”, or people who spin tall tales that “sound” good. Unlike advertising, which may twist or bend the truth for effect, PR is about telling the truth, always, even if it sounds really bad and detrimental. After all, the truth is what the public and the media demand. If there is a major mindset change required, it is that PR practitioners are facilitators for you to TELL THE TRUTH, and not be your shield behind some façade. The faster you learn this, the faster your organization moves forward and gain the trust of the journalists, ultimately resulting in great coverage.

3) Leave scripts behind. Many top executives become OVER-prepped by their PR practitioners, resulting in a stoic appearance before the media, and simply reading from a dry script. At the first instance of a question raised by a journalist outside the script, the executive clams up! Rather than rely on prepared answers which may not reflect the truth, remember that great PR is about telling the truth. Speak from your heart, get ready all available reference materials, statistics and research, and back up your truthful answers. Have a small panel on hand to answer specific or technical questions raised by the journalists, which fall outside your management expertise. The journalists will walk away with the right and truthful answers they desire, and you are seen as prepared without needing a dry boring script.

4) Time your message in a crisis. If the crisis is not your own, should you crawl into the busy media scene and kick up the dirt blowing your horn? An experienced PR consultant from an international PR agency was heard saying on TV that in an international crisis (e.g. a war), it is the “best” time to make news. This white-haired guy obviously doesn’t know his work! In an international crisis, your news competitor is the international crisis, which will hog the media. Your feeble attempts to squeeze your “tiny” message in will be largely futile, since there is a lot of “noise”. Pick your battles, and pick your time well to communicate with the media, especially if the crisis has NOTHING to do with you.

Crisis management is NOT managing a crisis only when it strikes. A good crisis management program should be pre-emptive, with plenty of work going into designing, testing, and auditing the program. Regular crisis simulations should be carried out, to ensure that every employee is prepared for the worst of times. And what is the mark of a true leader especially evident in a crisis? It is one who openly embraces a mistake, and takes full personal accountability. All too often, many senior executives forget that with executive perks come the same level of accountability.

These are some writings we did in 2003 (published as “DotZen”, a paperback book that was widely publicized), and we extracted some which are still relevant today, in the areas of branding, marketing, sales, publicity, and business improvement. If we find some time outside that of helping our clients grow and taking a rest, we will try to write some more.

Copyright©2003 Seamus Phan & Ter Hui Peng. All rights reserved.