Crisis Communication 101: How to Deal with a PR Disaster

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You find yourself at the center of a media storm. What are you doing? You call the PR experts to help you fix it.

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What happens when a high profile person, a big business or a politician is really wrong?

Take the case of Gerald Ratner, who in 1991 was the managing director of a British jewelery company, Ratners.

That year he gave a speech at the Institute of Trustees, in which he uttered this infamous line: “People say to me, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say ‘because it’s total crap'”.

The public laughed, but not the shareholders.

Ratners’ value fell by half a billion pounds. The company was devastated and ended up having to rebrand.

There are options, however, if you make a colossal mistake like this.

Apologies, no apologies, or duplicates.

But the best thing is perhaps to call on experts: public relations professionals, crisis management experts whose job is to help you get through this ordeal.

So what are they actually doing?

David Cormack, co-owner of Draper Cormack’s public relations firm and a former Green Party staffer, says that basically the job of public relations managers is to understand how people will emotionally react to things.

“We’ll give you that information, if you do X, a reporter is going to do that line of questioning and the audience is going to respond that way,” he says.

“The best thing I always insist on is having a comms guy at the top table, on the executive team, because so often terrible decisions are made because comms aren’t there, then it goes wrong, then the comms person gets dragged around trying to fix it after the fact.

“Whereas if you had someone whose primary focus is your organization’s reputation, they might have been able to stop them before that happened.”

Cormack says reputation matters for a number of reasons – in Ratners’ example, the company took a huge financial hit.

“But also people just want to be liked, we want to be respected and loved for what we do and understood and appreciated.”

Cormack says how he reacts as a public relations manager in a crisis situation varies from client to client.

However, he says the first thing they need to check is the facts – and they need people to be completely honest about what happened.

“We make it very clear that we can’t do a job for them unless they’re completely honest with us because otherwise it’s not going to go well. You’re basically asking someone to instantly trust you with a when they are already very stressed.”

Once all of this is established, Cormack says he will play the role of reporter, interviewing and punching holes, to find out if any information is missing.

Cormack says the first public statement is make or break — but he’s a big advocate for people or organizations apologizing if they’ve actually made a mistake.

“Not apologizing to a politician, saying I’m sorry people felt that way, but you actually have to apologize for the action you’re criticized for.”

Cormack says that most of the time, if you’re upfront and apologetic, the initial response will be to dismiss it as just a PR response – but over time people will come to admire someone who acknowledges their mistake.

“It’s a situation where you can actually take the bad event and turn it into a positive testimony of character – it’s the best way out of a crisis.”

But Cormack says they don’t see it much, as most people don’t like to admit they’re wrong and instead dig.

“One of the things that is difficult about our job is that we are advisers, so we can only give advice and it is up to you whether or not you take that advice and do what we suggest.”

And Cormack’s advice is to follow that advice.

“We’re the experts, that’s why you brought us here.”

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