Eight Steps For Leaders Navigating A PR Crisis

Eight Steps For Leaders Navigating A PR Crisis

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Jaime Hunt is vice president and chief communications and marketing officer for Miami University of Ohio.

Nearly every organization will face a public relations crisis at some point in its existence, whether that crisis is brought on externally or spawned by the actions of your organization or someone representing it. In our ever-evolving, hyper-connected world, a small issue can be amplified a thousandfold thanks to social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

When a reputational crisis rears its ugly head, emotions can run high. It can be hard for leaders to make objective decisions, particularly if you or others in your leadership feel personally attacked. Preparing a framework in advance — and sticking to that framework — can help you navigate the choppy waters with greater ease.

There is no magic wand that can wipe away a sticky mess, but these eight steps can help you be more prepared to handle a PR issue effectively.

1. Listen and understand.

Step away from your feelings. Stay calm and measured; don’t let your response be colored by your reaction to the message. Set aside anger, frustration and hurt and really listen to what is being said by your detractors. Pause to hear what lies between the lines. Is there validity in their complaints? Does something that seems very surface-level actually have deep roots that need to be uprooted? Reflect on what led to the current challenge. Is the issue with one or two departments or people, or is it emblematic of widespread problems in your organization? What is the real issue at the heart of the current crisis?

2. Avoid knee-jerk reactions.

Don’t comment, post or tweet until you have conferred with your PR team on the best, most reasoned approach. Don’t let a knee-jerk reaction fuel the fire. Going quiet for a moment isn’t a bad thing when you are working to craft a response. Of course, such responses are generally best delivered swiftly, but don’t multiply a challenge by issuing a message that doesn’t hold water or worsens the situation.

3. Craft a response.

Never respond with “no comment.” If you are still assessing the situation, simply say that. Ensure your response is measured. Communications should be well-thought-out and designed to resonate with your audiences, but don’t fall into analysis paralysis. Be transparent and authentic. People can and will see through insincerity and lip service. Don’t play the blame game. Acknowledge frustrations or hurt, express appreciation to your audience for voicing their concerns, tell them they are heard and share how you will be making it right.

4. Engage key stakeholders.

Eliminate surprises by checking in with your board, donors or other critical stakeholders. Engage any external partners who may be impacted. Loop in your sales and customer service leadership and ensure they know you are working on a response strategy and that you will provide information as soon as you can. This is also an opportunity to leverage your supporters. External voices often have greater impact. Can you tag others in to show their support of you or your organization?

5. Monitor the reaction.

Have your social media team track trends and report themes. Any response is unlikely to please everyone; however, you may observe a gradual trend of decreased negative comments and posts. Fixing a misstep — whether intentional or otherwise — will not happen overnight, but you should begin to see a decline in animosity over time. If not, it’s time to reassess whether your initial message was enough.

6. Plan for what’s next.

Consider the long-term response. If your organization’s values were questioned, consider ways to showcase those values in future campaigns. Can you work your response messaging into future communications? Ask yourself what needs to be done to strengthen the areas people found lacking. Bring other voices to the table as you assess. Your sales team, customer service staff and social media managers have their fingers on the pulse of your audiences and can be excellent sounding boards as you move on from a crisis.

7. Recognize the effort.

A PR crisis often takes a team of people working in concert. Acknowledging their efforts encourages them to bring their best to any future challenges. It’s also important to recognize the parts of your organization that may have felt personally attacked. Express empathy and demonstrate your concern for their feelings.

8. Learn from it.

Before you relax, take the time to conduct a post-crisis review to analyze what went well and what did not. Gather feedback from your stakeholders and ask for an analysis from your social media team. No response will ever be perfect. Take what you’ve learned and apply it to future challenges.

The more prepared you are for a PR crisis, the better you will respond. A good response will minimize the negative effect on your reputation. Thinking through how you’d handle a reputational issue before it happens will give you a much greater chance of protecting your brand.


Forbes Communications Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?


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