It’s been a while since South Florida has seen a hurricane, so many people either may never have experienced one, or they have become complacent and unprepared.
As a native Floridian, I have weathered many a storm. And, as a journalist, I saw up close and personal the devastation hurricanes can bring.
Preparing for a storm can be a lot like preparing for a public relations crisis. We hope it never comes, but if it does, we can make it through if we are prepared.
As Tropical Storm Erika makes its way through the Atlantic, many people are taking a wait-and-see attitude. But is that really the best approach? As with public relations, probably not. These days you can’t take a stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach and hope that whatever happens blows over.
As a hurricane nears the last thing you want to do is decide that now is the time to run out and buy plywood for your windows and stock up on water and batteries. The same applies in public relations – prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The following are some things you should put into place before a crisis occurs:
Identify early on who will be on your crisis communications team. This should consist of senior executives and ideally the CEO. Assuming you have a public relations firm or in-house PR team, they should be coordinating the effort and providing guidance.
Media training is key. Once you have a team in place, make sure they are properly trained and prepared to speak. Brainstorm on possible scenarios and responses. Schools have fire drills, why not have a PR crisis drill? Set up a scenario and let everyone work through it. Learn what works and what doesn’t.
Once a crisis happens respond as quickly as possible, even if it’s just to say you are aware of the situation, investigating what happened, and will have a comment as soon as possible. Don’t leave the media or the public hanging, otherwise they might come up with their own ideas as to what happened and get it wrong. Now you not only will have to get your message out, but engage in further damage control created by speculation.
Make sure the message is consistent. You don’t want your CEO saying one thing and someone else on your team saying something that conflicts. There should be no “off the record” in a crisis situation.
Maintain an updated list of key contacts including media lists, employees, stakeholders, etc.
Move your social media team into high gear. Have someone monitoring your social media channels and be prepared to respond to critics. But don’t just take a reactive approach, be proactive. Make sure your consistent messaging goes out on your social media channels. Do not delete comments, respond to them. Reporters often turn to those channels and will use your comments in their reporting. This is also great a way to reach those both inside and outside of your organization who may be impacted by your crisis. You might also consider an e-blast to employees or clients.
Update contacts regularly. With an impending storm, we rely on regular updates to help us prepare. Do the same in a PR crisis. Decide when and how often you will provide updates and let people know when they can expect them.
Man the phones. Make sure that if people are calling they don’t go into a black hole. The person answering should refer all calls relating to the situation to those on the crisis communications team.
Often legal counsel is brought in during a crisis and that’s where some head-butting might occur. Many lawyers will advise clients not to comment, but that can prove even more damaging. Today, many companies are judged harsher in the court of public opinion than they are in a court of law.
Like every storm that approaches, not every PR crisis will be the same. Some are worse than others, but if you are prepared, you will be able to make it through and mitigate the damage.
Susan R. Miller is founder of Garton-Miller Media, a full-service, South Florida based public relations firm. Susan is a former journalist with more than 30 years of experience.
Garton-Miller Media is a full-service, South Florida-based public relations firm. Founder Susan R. Miller has 30 years of experience as a writer, journalist and PR professional.