Crisis PR: It’s not what you think

The reputation of crisis PR firms just became the latest collateral damage in Facebook’s continued fight to restore its own image.

In an effort to manage a series of crises, a Facebook communications director did what anyone in their position should: brought in a team of crisis communications experts to manage the message.

Unfortunately, the agency did what companies often think — or wish — a crisis PR firm would: attempted to spin the story, in part by digging up, or outright creating, dirt on its opponents. This may be what movies and ABC’s Thursday night dramas are made of, but most crisis communications professionals will tell you: that’s not what we do. If you find a firm that recommends or promises to do so, find a new one. Not only will your crisis make the news, but so will the missteps in how it was managed.

Frankly, crisis PR isn’t as exciting or deceitful as the public wants it to be, and that reputation is only making the jobs of crisis communications advisers and internal PR teams harder. The perception is that we as crisis communicators manipulate the news and do it by any means necessary. In reality, we are trying to shape the story, but our strategies are centered around transparency and consistency.

In the midst of a crisis, leadership’s questions come from a place of panic: If this gets out, we’re going to lose our customers and investors. They turn to outside crisis PR experts and tell them to solve their problems. Often, among their top concerns are:

  • We don’t want our customers or employees to find out.
  • If the story does come out, we don’t want people to think we’re the bad guys.
  • We really don’t want this on Page 1 of Google.

For those in the midst of a crisis, the instinct may be to:

  • Ignore, deny or lie about the facts of a problem.
  • Point fingers and make a new or bigger bad guy.
  • Create bigger and better news, by any means necessary.

This is where the role of a crisis communications firm becomes important. The firm’s role is to advise a struggling organization and serve as a reality check for its leaders. It’s not to be a magician.

With that in mind, here are four tips when confronting a crisis:

#1 Never deny a problem.

Any seasoned crisis manager operates under the belief that if it happened, your audiences are going to find out. They’re going to feel more betrayed if they learn you lied, and you’ll create a new development for the media to report on. It’s okay to ask for time while the facts are unfolding, but ultimately, the goal should be to provide information to your audiences.

#2 Work only with facts, not wishes or half-truths.

That means that if you are at fault, you should explain what happened and the steps you’re taking to resolve the matter. If you aren’t at fault — or if reports have been exaggerated — proactively tell your side of the story.

#3 Don’t try to trick Google.

Maybe you’ve been told that there are ways to “fix” your first-page Google results, and are ready to carry out whatever black hat tactics were once vaguely described to you in a cold email. You can’t change Google overnight, but you can work to control the narrative that appears on Page 1 and eventually make and promote bigger and better news.

#4 Lastly and most importantly, leadership must take ownership.

At the very least, leadership must put confidence in their teams to make important decisions, and be willing to be held accountable for those decisions. Saying “I didn’t know what our crisis PR firm was doing” will not only make the story worse, it will create a new one.

Hire a crisis communications team to be your ally and help you confront a difficult situation. And remember, no crisis has ever been resolved through spin, coercion or avoidance of the facts. Facebook isn’t the first to forget this, and unfortunately, they almost certainly won’t be the last. We can all do better.

Kelsey Eidbo is a Senior Client Supervisor based in Infinite Global's San Francisco office. As one of Infinite Global’s crisis communications professionals, Kelsey helps firms create proactive crisis communications plans to mitigate reputational risk and advises on communications strategies in response to crisis situations.

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