PR crisis? Here are dozens of tactics for limiting negative coverage

For clients and practitioners alike, a reputational firestorm can seem interminable. Here’s how to handle voracious journalists while maintaining your integrity.

Expert PR crisis guidance

In a crisis, the flood of adverse coverage can seem endless.

How, then, can PR reps minimize the flow of negative stories?

Any honest PR advisor would tell clients that getting news outlets to stop negative coverage is impossible until the situation is resolved. Even then, the crisis becomes part of the client’s DNA and can be revived as an example during others’ PR crises.

The best advice? Look forward. Don’t make excuses. Explain why the problem occurred and how you are going to fix it.

Here’s are dozens of tips and tactics:

Immediate steps for PR crisis response

  • Call your attorney and explain the situation.
  • Notify internal PR people about the crisis, and tell them the only response to media inquiries until further notice is, “We’re checking into the situation and will release additional information when we have specific facts.”
  • Arrange a meeting or conference call with the corporate attorney and your PR firm to coordinate a strategy.
  • Appoint a person or team to respond to media inquiries.
  • Have all statements cleared by your attorney(s).
  • Don’t hide from reporters.
  • Never allow the first official statement to say the organization or individual did nothing wrong. Journalists won’t believe it, and facts might emerge that disprove the statement. Remember the BP, Boeing and many similar situations where early denial caused later problems.
  • Depending upon the situation, issue a prompt apology.
  • Once the situation is clear, arrange interviews with beat reporters.
  • Do not fall for reporters’ ploys when they say, “I’m on deadline and need an immediate response.” Their deadlines are not your problem.
  • Do not engage in lengthy conversations with journalists when they request information. Politely say that regular updates will be posted on the website and that a management spokesperson will answer questions when there is major news to report. In other words, do what you can to control the news flow.

Crisis and non-crisis management rules for PR reps

  • Don’t expect favors from news media friends. They have to satisfy their editors, not you, with their coverage.
  • Respond to all media calls promptly, but remember that responding does not mean you have to accede to the journalist’s request.
  • During a prolonged crisis, updates should be posted on the client’s website on a regular, as needed, basis. Doing so might prevent reporters from digging for information on their own, resulting in stories that might be more negative to the client.
  • When announcing news favorable to a client, arrange a roundtable discussion with beat reporters; always include wire service journalists.
  • Never hold a free-for-all press conference with top management until the situation has been resolved.
  • Always have several pre-planned answers to journalists’ questions, to use as needed.
  • When dealing with reporters, don’t ad-lib. Stick to what has been agreed on, and stay on message.
  • Expect negative press coverage. Don’t take it personally.
  • “No comment” replies should be on your never-do list. You can respond to a question in many ways that will give the reporter a usable quote without divulging specifics.
  • After every conversation with a reporter or client, write a “call report” and disseminate it to the account team.

Crisis and non-crisis management rules for PR account managers

  • Never lie to nor even mislead a journalist.
  • Always record interviews with a reporter; critique the interview with the client ASAP, or ask a senior agency individual to do so. Delay other interviews until after the critique.
  • Transcribe all interviews, and disseminate copies to your client contact and all agency and legal personnel involved with the account.
  • After every interview, immediately email the reporter emphasizing the client’s key remarks. Say you are having the interview transcribed and are willing to send a copy to the reporter. This keeps the reporter from deliberately taking things out of context. The email should include talking points and key information not covered in the interview.
  • Prior to an interview, remind the client that anything said is likely to be used in the story—and, if not now, in a follow-up article.
  • Emphasize that even if a client says, “This is off the record,” that doesn’t mean that the reporter agrees. Never say anything “off the record,” even if the reporter agrees.
  • Even if a reporter turns off a recorder or puts away a notebook, that doesn’t mean the interview is over. Anything you or a client says can be used.
  • If a reporter makes a comment you or a client disagree with, say so. Keeping quiet could give the impression that you agree.
  • Never answer an unclear question. Ask for clarification.
  • A TV or print interview without client talking points is worthless; a short interview with client talking points is preferable to a lengthy interview without them.
  • Avoid recorded broadcast interviews in controversial situations. Editing of such interviews can intentionally or unintentionally distort the message.

Think for yourself

The best advice for both young and seasoned PR practitioners is not to take the road most traveled. Take a different route. Think for yourself. Be flexible in your planning, because every crisis needs original thinking. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. The same is true in non-crisis program planning.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

COMMENT

3 Responses to “PR crisis? Here are dozens of tactics for limiting negative coverage”

    Jeff Christensen says:

    Add:

    1. Have a crisis plan in place that is based in process.
    2. Have a relationship with a crisis firm in the event of escalation.

    Bill Spaniel says:

    I agree with Jeff. In fact, having a plan beforehand will help to calm the situation–at least within the organization. The plan should include who will be the principal spokesperson and steps to clear and verify information. Also, employees should be kept informed at least at the same time as journalists. Any information provided journalists should be provided to employees.

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