Scientists believe that the zigzags, lines, dots and semi-circles on the walls of caves may very well be the first written communications of prehistoric man, 40,000 years ago (Boden, 2015). Today, social media permits the exchange of ideas in an instant. From the beginning to now, the art and science of communications has always been a matter of skillfully phrasing the perfect message, disseminated to the precise public through the best method possible and at the perfect time.
Crisis communications demands that one uses the best crafted message delivered by the most effective method to the precise public (audience). This has not changed. What has changed is the fact that social media make it possible for faster communication than traditional methods and to a very precise, often chosen, public. Whereas we used to have a “golden hour” to disseminate crucial information about a crisis, now we have a “golden few minutes” before publics expect information. In fact, publics generally want information before it is available. The message still needs to be carefully written—mistakes on social media can live forever—but social media encourage rapid and frequent two-way communication between an organization and its segmented publics, without a gatekeeper. Social media can build positive relationships with these publics.
So what the new technology has done is present new methods of communicating faster, possibly better and possibly not. It has not eliminated the need for traditional methods. And it has not changed the facts of human behavior—ethical and professional standards, the basic tenets of crisis communications.
is a major occurrence with a potentially negative outcome affecting the organization, company, or industry, as well as its publics, products, services, or good name. A crisis interrupts normal business transactions and can sometimes threaten the existence of the organization. A crisis can
be a strike, terrorism, a fire, a boycott, product tampering, product failure, or numerous other events (see the list in Chapter 14, p. 354
). The size of the organization is irrelevant. It can be a multinational corporation, a one-person business, or even an individual.
Public relations (PR) professionals often say, “I have a crisis every day.” This is an exaggeration, of course. The term crisis denotes something more serious than a “problem.” Public relations people deal with problems—solving them or avoiding them. By definition, however, a crisis interrupts the normal flow of business, so a crisis cannot be a normal part of this flow.
On the other hand, a crisis is not necessarily so catastrophic that the life of the organization is destroyed. Exxon suffered the crisis of crises after its oil spill in 1989. It still suffers from a bad image, but it continues to thrive in business. (See the Exxon case in Chapter 6
This book advises you to plan for the worst that can happen, whether it be a crisis or a problem, and it brings us to another expression: “Be prepared.” This book shows you how to prepare yourself and your organization to cope with crises that may occur. It deals with preparations made far in advance, as well as with strategies and tactics to be used during a crisis. It examines the experiences of public relations professionals in crises, describing what they did, what they wished they had done, and what hampered their progress. You can learn from their successes and failures.
In a crisis, in contrast to a problem, emotions are on edge, brains are not fully functioning, and events are occurring so rapidly that drafting a plan during a crisis is unthinkable. Simply following one is difficult.
Crisis management is a process of strategic planning for a crisis or negative turning point, a process that removes some of the risk and uncertainty from the negative occurrence and thereby allows the organization to be in greater control of its own destiny.
Crisis communications is the dialog between the organization and its public(s) prior to, during, and after the negative occurrence. The dialog details strategies and tactics designed to minimize damage to the image of the organization.
Effective crisis management includes crisis communications that not only can alleviate or eliminate the crisis but also can sometimes bring the organization a more positive reputation than it had before the crisis.
Public relations deals with publics. Publics are the specific audiences targeted by programs. People frequently use the term “general public,” but public relations professionals are usually more specific in their targeting. Examples of corporate publics include the following: employees, customers, stockholders, community members, board members, unions, and retirees.
Proactive public relations programs can be used to build relationships with certain publics. They can prevent crises; they can also make these publics supportive when there is a crisis. Trust is at the heart of each type of public relations.
These programs might be the following:
• Media relations: Building a positive relationship with the news media so they know you are reliable, professional, accurate, and ethical. Tactics for the news media would include not only news releases but also pitch letters, backgrounders, media advisories, media tours, news conferences, and others.
• Community relations: Building a positive relationship with community leaders, organizations, families, individuals. Tactics may include advisory boards, open houses, speakers’ bureaus, public service announcements, CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities, exhibits, scholarships.
• Employee/internal relations: Building a bond with employees even if there are only one or two, making employees feel a part of the organization. These would be volunteers in non-profit organizations. Tactics would be the use of an intranet, newsletters, and other house organs, closed-circuit television, email and other social media, contests, awards, gifts.
• Consumer relations: Building a mutual bond between the company and its customers. A returns policy, tours, sales advantages, brochures, posters/flyers, open houses, educational material, and a complaint system are possibilities.
There can also be programs for government relations, labor relations, international relations, investor relations, and others. An organization depends on these publics for survival because they have some stake in the organization.
Public relations is concerned with reputation. It exists to avoid a negative image and to create or enhance a positive reputation. It is largely the fear of a negative image that causes organizations to develop public relations departments, hire public relations agencies, or both. Too often, an organization does not consider utilizing public relations until it is in a crisis. Then it wants a speedy recovery.
Research shows that companies with ongoing two-way communications often avoid crises or endure crises of shorter duration or of lesser magnitude (see Chapter 2, “Crisis Communications Theory”
). Research also shows that companies with a crisis management and/or crisis communications plan come out of a crisis with a more positive image than companies without such a plan.
Whether an organization is a large multinational company or a small business, a crisis communications plan is needed. A crisis communications plan is preferably a part of a company-wide crisis management plan that includes sections on evacuation, work sites, equipment, and so on. If a company does not have a crisis management plan, a crisis communications plan is still advisable—even urgent.
The media to which you have tried unsuccessfully to pitch ideas for news stories, the media that toss “perfect” news releases in the trash, the media that never return phone calls—those media will call on you in a crisis. They will probably not telephone in advance. They will show up on your premises “in your face.” The media, seeing themselves as advocates for the people, can be the principal adversaries in a crisis.
This is a time when public relations takes front and center—in a very crucial way. This is not to say that public relations will operate independently—that might be a greater disaster. It is a time, however, when the CEO (chief executive) may listen to the PR pro whose name he can never remember.
Sometimes, even in a crisis, the head of the company or organization does not listen because business schools often teach CEOs to make their own decisions. There are many documented cases of disasters during which CEOs acted independently. The Exxon crisis is an example. Exxon’s CEO, Lawrence Rawl, did not respond as the media and environmentalists would have preferred. He did not accept responsibility as rapidly as critics felt he should have. He did not fly to Valdez to express concern. All the moves the public relations experts would advise, Rawl ignored. Rawl is not alone among corporate heads in his response, but the number of bad responses is declining as organizations learn the effects of public opinion.
In a crisis, when everyone else is in a state of panic, public relations practitioners must offer a calming presence: “This is not as bad as it seems,” or “This could be worse. We cannot turn crises into catastrophes. This is what we do …”