The right PR strategy for a company crisis

First Toyota. Now BP.

The two global companies were tone deaf when a crisis erupted. But why? I thought the practice of “crisis communications” was a lot more advanced than it has played out recently.

Karen Kaplan

Karen Kaplan

To get experts’ perspective on the damaging mistakes and provide a better model for execs who may face a crisis in the future, I sat down with three local PR veterans: Rob Baskin of Manning, Selvage & Lee; Bob Hope of Hope-Beckham; and Karen Kaplan of Fleishman-Hillard. Each heads the Atlanta operation of their respective firms. Together, they have 105 years of PR experience.

To be honest, they were befuddled by BP’s actions and how ill-prepared and off-balance it has been from the start. But rather than belabor the well-reported misdeeds, how do you do it right?

When a crisis erupts, they said, a company — hopefully the CEO — needs to take charge quickly or a bad situation can spin out of control. If that happens, it’s hard to regain control and a company risks bouncing from reaction to reaction as its reputation and brand get pummeled.

Since the very nature of a crisis means it is likely to be unprecedented and unpredictable, they said, having an up-to-date communications plan becomes even more imperative. Uncertainty requires more planning — not less.

That means running periodic crisis-simulation exercises to get familiar with unfamiliar terrain.

Rob Baskin

Rob Baskin

It also means having a clear understanding of who the messenger will be from Day One. They suggested the CEO, but they cautioned that some CEOs would rather delegate the task. That might be OK, they said, as long as there is “one unifying voice.” PR experts — internal and external — need to have seats in the War Room to offer their advice.

But that’s not always the case, they said. Sometimes the operations, legal and financial execs get much more access to the CEO than the PR people. In the current climate of 24/7 news, that can be even more damaging to a company than it might have been in the past.

But what does a CEO or designated spokesman say, particularly if all the facts are not known?

Again, it’s the uncertainty that requires skillful and honest leadership. That has to play out internally with employees and externally with the public from the start of the crisis.

It’s critical, they said, to communicate the following from the gitgo:

– Here’s what we did wrong. We’re sorry.

Bob Hope

Bob Hope

– Never minimize the impact before all the information is in. If that happens, a sense of distrust can emerge that will be very hard to erase.

– Here’s what we’re going to do to repair the situation in the short-term. We will keep you abreast on at least a daily basis. This is important, they said, since the “rumor mill” is generally on fire during a crisis.

– Here’s what we’re going to do over the long haul to make it right. A separate team should be charged with developing plans and a timeline that might go on for five or 10 years, or more.

Essentially, a company and its CEO need to become transparent, humble and humane. It may not be easy, but it’s required.

Otherwise, don’t expect forgiveness.

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4 comments Add your comment

Glenn Beck

June 22nd, 2010
8:14 am

Together, they have 105 years of PR experience.

They don’t look like they are 105.

jeremy garlington

June 22nd, 2010
2:29 pm

There’s no such thing as a PR crisis — or at least there shouldn’t be. Great companies, leaders and cultures know how to deal with bad stuff instinctively because it’s part of their DNA. Enter Johnson & Johnson and Coke. Toyota and BP obviously don’t have the same chops for different reasons so when the proverbial blank hits the fan they don’t respond effectively. That’s nearly always worse than the crisis itself. No amount of PR spin, backpedaling or empty apology can replace this truth.

AH

June 22nd, 2010
3:37 pm

First, I don’t think you can lump Toyota and BP into the same category. Toyota still makes a far superior product than most vehicles out there. I (and many others) never bought into the majority of the “sudden acceleration” claims. There are so many dishonest people looking for a quick buck, and quite honestly people would rather complain than give any giant corporation accolades. We have been become a dishonest society that lacks any common sense and personal responsibility. How in the World is any company suppose to spin when mosts Americans could care less and are stupid?

The BP disaster was an horrific accident just waiting to happen. Just so happens that BP got caught doing the damage first. Boycotting BP is ineffective and hurts the wrong people. President Obama and the federal government should be taking the biggest PR hit for not demanding action from BP sooner. This is one area where we need bigger government intervention – when disaster hits the US. Our government has more compassion for the folks of Haiti vs the good people of the Gulf Coast. Just some have a misguided compassion for illegals immigrants – ALWAYS for the wrong hypocrital reasons.

I could care less about the BP PR spin machine, I want work not words. Sad that our society worships spin Drs and politicians like President Obama.

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