In PR, as on the gridiron, planning and practice win in crunch time

Huddle up! Draw up your crisis strategy, do a walkthrough, be prepared to move swiftly down the field, and don’t be afraid to call an audible.

When the air cools and the leaves begin to fall, for me, it means one thing: football.

PR pros, not unlike football coaches, must prepare detailed game plans to avoid getting caught off guard. These plans should outline a comprehensive strategy for how their team will respond to a variety of situations, so they can weather adversity.

When teams don’t adjust well to unanticipated events—injuries, ejections, severe weather, crowd noise or bad calls, for instance—they rarely succeed. The same goes for handling a PR crisis.

In honor of the football season upon us, here are four tips to craft a coach-worthy crisis communications game plan for your clients:

1. Draw it up.

For each anticipated scenario, you should have a written holding statement in place, or at least a template with placeholders for pending details. It’s also important to prepare messaging and procedures for any employees who might be approached by news media members. Would a football coach ask his players to wing it, without any practice or prep? Neither should PR pros.

For each specific scenario, identify a primary spokesperson to speak about the technicalities of the crisis. The spokesperson must also be comfortable in front of a camera, knowing how to tackle difficult questions and run the option to secondary messaging when necessary.

Also, map out your points of contact ahead of time.

2. Do a walk-through.

You can spend weeks putting together your game plan on paper, but if you don’t practice, you might fumble in the heat of the moment.

Whether it’s an in-depth crisis strategy or simply a few prepared responses to a minor problem, walk your clients through each step. Make sure you’re both clear on the spokespeople, key messages and timetable to ensure no one is caught off guard.

3. Run your two-minute offense.

News today spreads like wildfire. When you’re in crisis mode, the clock is ticking. Every second spent scrambling for a response strategy means more reputational damage, questions, accusations and rumors.

Depending on the scenario, silence may come across as a tacit admission of guilt, so you must work quickly to coordinate your response. Consider yourself at your own goal line, with less than two minutes to play.

It is important to get ahead of the story, but make sure you have every detail and all the facts before releasing any statements. You don’t want to jump the gun and later be forced to backtrack. Once your message is delivered, there’s no taking it back. Providing false or misleading information is akin to throwing an interception on your comeback drive.

4. Don’t be afraid to call an audible.

There may be several crisis scenarios you can anticipate and prepare for ahead of time. However, there will always be trick plays you never saw coming.

It’s OK to call a timeout, regroup, scrap your previous plan and develop a new strategy. If you’re in a situation where you need to respond to a reporter right away, let them know you’re still gathering details and will get back to them quickly. Don’t panic at the line of scrimmage and feel that you must stick with the original play call. Take your time, and get it right.

The final whistle

No two crises are the same, but having a detailed plan in place—and practicing it—puts you in a much better position to succeed when crunch time arrives. If you wait until after the game starts, you and your client will likely get manhandled, tossed around and roughed up. Make sure your team is prepared.

A version of this post first appeared on the Largemouth Communications blog.

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