Even in a Crisis, Remember PR Basics

Aug 20, 2014

Face it: everyone makes mistakes. It’s a fact of life, and the world of PR is no exception to the rule. It’s just that when PR professionals are involved in any kind of communication mis-step, the scrutinizing eyes seem so much more judgmental. And rightly so.

Two recent situations highlight the importance of key underlying PR concepts: mistakes can be prevented, and no matter what you call it, “crisis communications” strategies rely on the same principles that should govern all communications: transparency, a good editor, a robust and honest gut-check, and the strength to refrain from adrenaline-fueled, last-minute rushes to publish, post, Tweet or send. To wit:

  1. Edelman PR, a well-respected global PR firm, recently found itself on the hot seat (New York Times: “Edelman PR Firm is Taking Steps to Address Faux Pas”) for 1) a blog post in reaction to actor Robin Williams’ suicide-death, and 2) its response to a media questionnaire about representing clients who deny climate change.

Edelman quickly apologized for a “Carpe Diem” blog post that suggested Williams’ untimely August 11 death presented a PR “opportunity” to talk about mental illness; critics called the headline and blog post insensitive and callous. At about the same time, Edelman’s e-mail response to an international climate change survey included an attached internal screenshot and message that should have been deleted, followed by a personnel fallout (step-down of the CEO who did the attaching) and what can only be described as awkward follow-up quotes/interviews about Edelman’s PR strategies.

  1. In the racially torn town of Ferguson, MO., where African-American residents have protested the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the follow-up investigation and actions by a predominantly white police force, bloggers did not hesitate to point out that the PR firm hired to help soothe community tensions is not racially diverse (Talking Points Memo; “Ferguson Hires PR Firm That Appears to Be Staffed Only by White People”). Talk about insensitive.

What  lessons can we take away?

  • Transparency is the best policy. Yes, that’s right – even in PR. Be honest and upfront about who you are, what you represent, and how you represent yourself. Should the City of Ferguson, MO., asked its new PR agency if people of color were on staff? Indeed, and it should have been the very first question.
  • Get an editor. Having a second set of eyes gut-check every piece of content – white paper to Twitter post – will increase the probability that errors will be caught and corrected before copy is released to the webosphere.
  • Play devil’s advocate. No matter how vested you are in any project, content–a tagline, a slogan, a piece of website copy, a photograph, a company description, a product name, a headline, a report title – step back and examine it objectively to make sure it passes the smell test. Does it sound right? Look right? Read correctly? Can it be misinterpreted? Would someone with no vested interest “get it” at first glance? Does it make sense? Is it insensitive? Did you read it out loud a couple of times? In a foreign language, does it means something gross or embarrassing that could come back and bite you in the behind?
  • Even in a crisis, don’t rush. It’s perfectly OK to take that extra few minutes (or 10, or 20) to check for mistakes, read it again, get another opinion, or ask for advice. Make SURE that what you’re about to do is in line with your firm’s PR strategy and in line with what you would advise your clients to do. When in doubt, don’t.

Mistakes do and will happen. But as PR professionals, it’s incumbent on us individually and collectively to lead the way in showing our clients, prospects and even those PR naysayers what steps to take in order to avoid the these types of debacles from occurring often.

What additional steps do you recommend? Share your thoughts with the ThinkInk community below.


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