Sooner or later, every public relations practitioner will have to deal with a scenario they wish would just go away. But navigating the waters of a potentially disastrous situation requires more than wishful thinking. Responding to bad news effectively can mean the difference between success and failure.
It is bound to happen eventually. One day everything will be going great and, without warning, something will happen or news will break that redefines the term crisis management. While it is often said that any publicity is good publicity, anyone who has ever had to explain a potentially damaging situation would be quick to disagree.
Reacting to bad news begins with remaining calm and assessing the situation. Whether the public relations nightmare involves scandalous information about a candidate or elected official you are working for or charges of embezzlement in your company, addressing the situation involves learning all the details and deciding what information you want to release and when. Like sharks in the water, the media will be calling once they have detected blood. Handling the media successfully will mean the difference to whether you make it to shore alive as a public relations practitioner.
Remembering the Boy Scout’s motto of “Be Prepared” will go a long way in handling crisis management. In most organizations, it is usually understood that the public relations person is the contact for media inquiries. Stressing this during a public relations crisis is an absolute in order to assure accurate information is provided and, more importantly, that information is not distributed which is not intended for release to the public. Being forthcoming with the media is a must. But there may be details that need to be withheld regardless, as in situations where the police do not release information about a crime because doing so may hinder an investigation.
It also does not hurt to be ready if you know potentially harmful information may come out. I once worked for a mayoral candidate who was not particularly media savvy and had once been accused of assault. Although he was exonerated, we knew the news could be a disaster if the media found out about the charge and he faced the cameras unprepared.
Sure enough, someone (mostly likely one of his opponent’s supporters) did their homework on his background, uncovered the information, and leaked it to the media. Knowing that scenario was inevitable, we had had already drafted a statement explaining the situation which myself, the candidate, and campaign manager kept with us at all times. The purpose of this was to make sure what we said to the media was already prepared rather than the prospect of our candidate going before reporters without time to think in advance how he would explain the situation.
Making sure you are on the ball also keeps you from saying the two words the media detests: “No comment.” If you can’t provide information, tell them and explain why (which is different from saying “no comment”). If they ask for information you have previously provided, remind them in a firm but polite manner. Stonewalling the media can lead to even bigger headaches. And you’re really in trouble if they catch you lying.
In situations where dealing with a crisis spans an extended period, daily meetings are also important. Setting a specific time each day to discuss the situation is a must, and it may be beneficial to meet more than once each day.
As with most situations, whether professional or personal, the reality is often not as bad as the fear. Dealing with a bad situation is not a pleasant experience, but being prepared and honest can help you manage it successfully.
BARCELONA in Los Angeles