Are you ready for a crisis? See what the experts said at our January event

    By Ellen Lichtenstein, PRSA Colorado communications committee member, Principal Staff Writer at Vertafore

    When you work in PR and communications, it often feels like there is a crisis in progress every minute of every day. Most of the time these “crises” have more to do with lack of planning and last-minute requests from others, so we become skilled at putting out these metaphorical fires without too much thought. But actual crises, the kind that will cost you a night of sleep, have a lasting impact on your company’s or client’s reputation; Think data breaches, customer-facing blunders, employee discrimination charges.

    The first PRSA Colorado luncheon of 2020 focused on crisis communication, featuring an expert panel. Three longtime communications professionals, Margaret Fogarty, Leigh Picchetti and Jim Hooley, gave attendees their tips for preparing for and dealing with the realities of modern-day reputation management.

    Tip 1: Have a plan (and practice it)

    You might be surprised how many organizations do not have a crisis plan — or do not have one that accurately reflects their real-world risks. The panel of experts recommend identifying the top three to five most likely events or issues in which your organization would need a response. After identifying the potential crises, get down to the nitty-gritty and work out the details, such as who the stakeholders would be, who makes which decisions, and what your timeline looks like.

    What good is a plan if no one knows how to put it into practice? This part is equally important when it comes to your success during an actual event. The best-prepared organizations have plans and frequently review them, or even drill them, so when (not if) a crisis occurs, stakeholders are already comfortable going through the motions as planned.

    Tip 2: Stay calm and call that journalist back!

    Today’s news cycle is faster than ever, which means journalists have more time (and screen space) to fill with content. The result is a constant hunger for anything that could be perceived as a juicy story, no matter how mundane it might seem to you.

    The good news is, if you are prepared with your crisis communication plan and messaging, and you put your media-trained professionals in front of journalists, you might be able to convey the sentiment that there is “nothing to see here.” This is not to minimize the severity of your situation, but an effort to remain calm and professional as to not attract a media circus.

    While maintaining your organization’s reputation is of utmost importance, it is also important to respect journalists’ deadlines and be ready to respond immediately—or as soon as possible. If you do not return a call, or wait too long to do so, the story could end up with an awkward “no comment” from your side. Conversely, if you wait too long to address the media, you could also miss out on the chance for positive PR if a journalist is looking for a subject matter expert and you do not have someone ready with messaging prepared and pre-approved.

    Tip 3: Keep your crisis team small and make sure YOU have a seat at the table

    While your organization might think it is a good idea to have a 15-person crisis response team made up of everyone from the CEO to the head of legal, the truth is that smaller is better when it comes to crisis response. Your core crisis team should be small for practical reasons. You do not want a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation, nor do you want potentially damaging information being disseminated to more people than absolutely necessary. The panel recommend having a team of three to five people from your executive team and (this one is important!) someone from the PR/Communications function.

    In times of crisis, there is no time to figure out what to do. By creating a plan and designating a core response team with assigned roles and responsibilities, your crisis response can be delivered swiftly and deliberately.

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