Reputation Management: How to Survive a PR Crisis

“What’s the value of a negative story that never appears? Priceless.”
~ Grateful attorney after we kept his client out of the spotlight

Entertainment-industry publicists have long lived or died by an old adage: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Think Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Piling scandal on top of scandal simply enhances their bad-girl image.

Not so with companies, non-profit organizations and prominent-but-less-flamboyant individuals. They have shareholders, customers, donors and often a desire to have their privacy respected. Negative publicity can be ruinous. It can send stock prices tumbling and scare off buyers and benefactors. At the very least, privacy becomes but a fond memory.

That’s why there exists Crisis & Reputation Management — an elite sliver of the PR industry. Few do it well. They aren’t publicists, and they don’t do marketing PR. They’re fixers, and that’s all they do. Their greatest successes are the ones you never read about. If that’s not possible, at least they make it less bad.

Every organization is vulnerable to PR crises at any moment. Government investigation. Nasty litigation. Financial turmoil. Sudden management change. Data breach. Product recall. Industrial accident. Environmental damage. Natural disaster.

And there’s never a shortage of examples of those who step in it, big time. Remember Apple Maps, Chick-fil-A and Mitt Romney’s “47%”?

The global audit firm KPMG is one of the latest victims. After a top Southern California partner was caught feeding insider information to a golfing buddy, KPMG was forced to resign from two clients and forego millions in annual revenue. More defections are expected. The lesson: Trust is tenuous. Never take it for granted.

In college sports, look at Penn State and Rutgers.  Amid a sex-with-boys scandal, Penn State’s Board of Trustees fired everyone in the chain of command, from its popular head football coach up to the university president. Rutgers missed that memo. It tried to cover up physical and verbal abuse of players by its head basketball coach. But word leaked out. With each disclosure, the university hemorrhaged more officials.

The lesson here: The cover-up is worse than the original sin. Always.

Sometimes you can see crises coming. You can anticipate them and take action in advance to protect yourself. That’s always desirable.

Other times you get blindsided. When that happens, you’re already behind the curve. You need to work faster and harder to get ahead and shift the spotlight. It’s do-able, but it’s more intensive and more expensive.

It’s not a matter of “if” it will happen to you. It’s simply a matter of “when.” You’ve invested years of blood, sweat and tears to build what you have. Don’t risk it all by being unprepared.

Watch closely, and you’ll notice early warning signs. That’s the best time for you to take action — before small issues become big problems.

The first minutes of a crisis are vital. The first hour, a lifetime. What you say and do during that period is amplified. Mistakes made early on — a careless word, an erroneous statement, an appearance of confusion — can devastate your reputation and destroy your business. When you’re dealing with the media, there are no take-backs and no do-overs.

Equally dangerous is an absence of facts. The media abhors a vacuum and fills the void with speculation. Dead air is not an option. That’s why early news coverage of the Boston bombings and the Texas fertilizer-plant explosion was based on rumors.

The 24-hour news cycle is unforgiving. News developments are measured in minutes, sometimes seconds. The greatest casualty of this need for speed is that the media takes less time to confirm stories and verify facts. Consider the enormous potential for error. This makes it all the more urgent that you be prepared to respond quickly, to avoid damage that can’t be undone.

Perhaps the most notorious media blunder in recent years came on the morning the US Supreme Court ruled on the fate of health-care reform — arguably the most carefully planned news event in decades. Two major news outlets (Fox and CNN) were so anxious to be first that they got it wrong because they didn’t wait for Chief Justice Roberts to finish speaking.

When a story is developing fast, the media is hungry for solid information. This is an opportunity for you to set the tone and shape the story — if you’re quick and credible.

That’s the value of knowing in advance how to communicate in fast-moving situations and of having your staff coached on what to do — and not do. It’s a small investment with a big ROI.

It won’t prepare you for all scenarios. Nor will it let you ride out the entire storm. But it will help avoid early blunders while your Crisis PR team assembles to battle the firestorm and position you for the future.

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About the author – Roger Gillott is President of Gillott Communications, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that specializes in high-stakes Crisis & Reputation Management. He has held high-level positions for more than 20 years as an in-house corporate public relations executive for a Fortune 200 company and as a strategic communications consultant.

Previously, he began his career and spent a dozen years at The Associated Press as a highly regarded reporter and editor and as the head of its West Coast news operation for business, economics and labor relations.

For additional information please contact Patricia A. Kotze,  Managing Partner at Diversified Risk Management, Inc.  Ms. Kotze can be reached at 800.810.9508 or by email at pkotze@drminc.us

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