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August 28, 2012

6 Myths of Crisis Management PR

In the past several weeks, brands from Burger King and Penn State to Chick-fil-A and CelebBoutique have grappled with serious reputational threats.  These days, it’s almost routine for communications pros to be managing some kind of potential crisis situation along with proactive PR programs.

Yet true “crisis management” is probably a misnomer.  Though there are principles that apply to many situations, much of the analysis and advice from people like me comes in hindsight.  Armchair reputation managers sometimes forget that the conventional wisdom isn’t always relevant in the heat of the moment.  Here, then, are my favorite crisis management myths and misperceptions.

Myth #1. The Tylenol case is still the industry standard.  With respect to Johnson & Johnson and Burson-Marsteller, this 1982 crisis management “classic” is badly outdated and likely exaggerated.  As a victim of a frightening attack, the company faced a sympathetic press and public. And while it deserves credit for the fast introduction of tamperproof packaging months later (under FDA mandate), and for an extraordinary reintroduction of the brand, the immediate response was a poor prescription for today’s damage control experts. For example, it took the company eight days to respond to the first signs of crisis, an eternity in today’s compressed media environment.

Myth #2. A business crisis, by definition, is impossible to predict.  Not always. In fact, most crises grow out of foreseeable ills, and many have happened before, or are simmering situations left untreated or concealed, like the Penn State scandal. A study by the Institute for Crisis Management showed that sixty-five percent of business crises from 1990 to 2009 were “smoldering” or slow-burn situations, as opposed to thirty-five percent that were sudden events. A random catastrophe like the Tylenol poisonings is truly rare, accounting for roughly seven to eight percent of crises as opposed to product defects, lawsuits, mismanagement, and other theoretically foreseeable happenings.

Myth #3. Any crisis is manageable with advance planning and preparation. There’s not really a handbook for handling a business calamity. We sometimes preach advance planning and preparation as if they can prevent or preempt the damage, but often these measures can only shorten the window of negative scrutiny or moderate the tone of the resulting media coverage and chatter, at best.

Myth #4Never stonewall media inquiries. Professional communicators warn against ignoring journalists in a crisis because they’ll write the story with or without you and because it can harm media relations for the future. But we’ve all done it. When you don’t have the proper information or cannot legally share it, it’s better not to engage at all. You’ll take the heat, but staying silent can avoid worsening the situation when the facts aren’t clear.

Myth #5.  In a crisis, always get the top guy involved. This is where some inexperienced handlers jump the gun. Many negative situations are better handled by a corporate officer with enough seniority to be authoritative but not enough to jeopardize the CEO office or distract from other critical business. And where relevant, local market managers with community roots are nearly always preferable to home office execs. CEO involvement is usually best reserved for the most acute situations such as those involving loss of life.

Myth # 6.  Media and message training can save the day. In my experience media training is overrated, and, more importantly, it’s not often possible when a crisis is fresh. No PR professional or crisis manager will negate the importance of a blueprint for damage control and response. Yet, John Weber of Dezenhall Resources summed up the intangible and chaotic aspects of crisis PR when he said, “Given the choice between a good plan and a good leader, I’d take a good leader every time.”

This post was originally published on MENGBlend.

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