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Public Relations Expert Provides Crisis Management Tips

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Public Relations Expert Provides Crisis Management Tips

By Terry Corbell
The Biz Coach
Nov. 30, 2011

Appearances count. But universities, presidential candidates and businesses have all demonstrated a lack of awareness about good public relations. Given their significant status, we would expect them to exhibit world-class PR expertise in their crises.

But that’s not the case. Best practices in crisis management have been practically non-existent.

Consider these examples:

  • Penn State and Syracuse – their sexual abuse scandals
  • Herb Cain’s responses to the sexual harassment accusations
  • Rick Perry – his meltdown after a fast start in which he seemed invincible
  • Bank of America’s controversial debit-card pricing fee, which prompted countless Americans to switch to community banks and credit unions, and a downgrade in the bank’s credit rating
  • Anthem Blue Cross of California is facing multiple lawsuits as a result of policyholder perceptions of predatory increases in healthcare premiums and deductibles

Undoubtedly, in each situation, they would benefit from expert PR counsel.

“Businesses, politicians, sports figures and celebrities should all have a crisis plan because, sooner or later, they’re apt to need to activate it,” says noted PR expert Devon Blaine. “If that need never arises, at least they were prepared in case it did. There’s no harm in being a good Scout!”

Ms. Blaine has been the president and CEO of The Blaine Group, Inc. in Los Angeles since 1975. She has countless successes. So when she talks, clients listen and profit.

First step – preparation

“We’ve all seen what happens when people are not prepared,” she asserts. “Herb Cain is the perfect example. And he had a 10-day heads up prior to the Politico article coming out! Most people don’t have that advantage.”

She says even with a crisis plan, there are important financial considerations.

“…even if a crisis ends up being well managed despite the lack of advance preparation, managing the situation is needlessly more costly than it would have been had plans been made in advance,” Ms. Blaine explains. “The quality of the response may also suffer.”

She advises against complacency.

“Everyone believes that it will ‘not happen to me,’ but it can…and does…even to extremely small businesses such as our client that imported all of the wheat gluten from China that was used in every recalled pet food product a few years back,” she cites as an example.

“Had they had a crisis plan prepared which identified the vendors needed to mitigate risk, i.e., FDA attorney, crisis public relations firm, other legal counsel, etc., before they needed all of the above on an emergency basis, they would have paid a small consulting fee in advance and been ready rather than retaining all of the above on a last-moment, already-into-the-crisis emergency basis at top billing rates.”

Here are her excerpted answers to my crisis-management questions:

Q: What are the keys to crisis management?

A: There are many, for example:

  • Knowing what the potential crises could be
  • Planning and preparing in case the unthinkable should occur
  • Knowing who does what
  • Ensuring that the “chain of command” is known and adhered to in their office
  • Having a trained spokesperson who will address the media
  • Knowing what media to outreach to so that you are proactive rather than reactive
  • Ideally, having an ongoing positive media campaign in place, based on the theory that the best defense is a strong offense…if your business is viewed as a good corporate/community citizen, a crisis will harm the business less, and perhaps not at all

Q: How do you suggest preparing for crises in business?

A: Ideally the management team will brainstorm what they believe could go wrong in the business and then bring in a professional risk manager and crisis public relations person to brainstorm with them. A walk through the facility will also identify other potential trigger points, i.e., doors that are left open and provide access to the company’s computer server, to other sensitive data, to products where quality control is essential, etc.

Q: How do you suggest preventing a crisis?

A: Conducting business in a prudent fashion is always the best way to prevent a crisis, however, there are issues beyond your control that can go awry, i.e., buying product from a manufacturer that operates with less than optimum ethics, importing toys that are decorated in China with paint that is toxic to humans, etc… unless you have control over each part of the process, there’s room for error. Visiting your vendor before doing business with them can help to control this but does not 100 percent ensure that you’ll not encounter a problem later.

Q: In the event of a crisis, what are best business management practices?

A: Openness with the press and honesty are the best practices. Sometimes issuing a “controlled statement” is the best way to proceed, especially when management needs to focus on resolving the problem rather than being available to the press 24/7. It also prevents the possibility of a “burnout moment” and guards against a response that is not empathetic… as we saw in the recent oil spill crisis. Absolutely never respond with “no comment.” It is better to say “we are aware of the situation and we are looking into it,” which gives no more information yet sounds caring, concerned, involved, active and responsive rather than evasive.

Q: What are your suggestions for testing your crisis plan?

A: In an ideal world, your management team will work with a crisis planning team such as that which The Blaine Group offers with its Reputational Risk Management Solution Product and avail itself of the opportunity to have key management roll up its sleeves and “play” a board game where a crisis is enacted and everyone plays out their role. We recommend this be done on a quarterly basis to ensure that everyone stays fresh. It is also a good idea for your spokespeople to be trained and for there to be “refresher” sessions every few months.

Q: What should be done PR-wise immediately following a crisis?

A: See the response above regarding best business management practices. And, more important, think about what should be done before a crisis, i.e., being a good corporate citizen and making sure that you’re acknowledged as such in an ongoing positive corporate communications campaign.

Q: What should be done during the crisis aftermath?

A: See best business management practices above. Also, ensure that there is a steady stream of information released as you have answers to the situation that occurred.

Q: What should be done once a crisis has ended?

A: If there has been a problem with one of the company’s products or their product has caused their customers problems, there’s an opportunity to generate goodwill by setting up a program that not only ensures this won’t happen again but also instructs their customers in how to handle such a crisis. Be certain to communicate that all underlying issues have been addressed.

Resource link: Ms. Blaine’s Web site.

(Note: I’ve been very familiar with the expertise of Ms. Blaine since 2004. She is a fellow member of Consultants West, www.consultantswest.com, a roundtable of veteran consultants in the Los Angeles area.)

From the Coach’s Corner, Ms. Blaine also explains the secrets to marketing success in recessions.

“If I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on public relations.”

-Bill Gates

Columnist Terry Corbell is also a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services (many are available online). For a complementary chat about your business situation or to schedule Terry Corbell as a speaker, why don’t you contact him today?

Contact The Blaine Group