HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY OVERCOME A COVID-19 PUBLIC RELATIONS CRISIS
Imagine this potential real-life scenario. You’re sitting at your desk, enjoying your morning cup of Joe, when you receive a phone call from a reporter at a major daily newspaper saying, “I want a comment about one of your employees who just tested positive for COVID-19.”
First, take a deep breath. You’ve just sunk waist deep into a pile of reputation quicksand that has the potential to turn into a full-blown public relations (PR) crisis. How you respond could affect how your brand is viewed within the industry and outside of it. Once a reputation is tarnished, it can be a long, difficult struggle to regain your customers’ and the public’s trust.
More than half of communications executives and senior leaders (52%) said COVID-19 has had a “moderate” or “major” impact on their business operations and 83% are “moderately” or “extremely” concerned about the potential impact of the virus on their companies, according a recent survey by the Institute for Public Relations with Peppercomm.
More than three-quarters deemed the communication function as “important” or “very important” to their company’s COVID-19 response.
How can you adequately prepare for a public relations crisis, to avoid backlash?
I cannot stress this enough—remain calm. Ask the reporter to explain exactly what’s going on, from the beginning of the story. You need to understand everything that has led the reporter to pick up the phone and call you. These situations often seemingly come out of nowhere and there’s no shame in asking questions to clarify the acquisitions. Do not offer any statements during the call, just collect the information and let the reporter know you will be looking into this and then responding.
Your thoughts will probably be racing, as you struggle to compile enough information to construct a coherent understanding of what’s going on. That is completely understandable, under the circumstances. Be cognizant of timing. Newspaper reporters work under hourly and daily deadlines.
To help guide you through the process, here are steps to follow to successfully overcome a PR crisis:
Develop a crisis communication plan
Every organization must have a crisis communication plan, before an emergency happens. This is key! A crisis communication plan includes a crisis communication strategy, in addition to an outline of procedures to prepare you for an emergency. Similar to a marketing plan, which marketing teams develop, a crisis communications plan encompasses goals, target audiences, tactics and ways to measure results.
Also, your crisis communication plan needs to outline the following:
- Potential issues
- Crisis response team and roles—so you’re speaking with one voice
- Media strategy
- Real-time monitoring system to review sites on social media
- Post-crisis analysis
Examine the 5 Ws before you respond
Be methodical as you set out the facts and ask yourself the questions below:
- Who made this statement?
- Was it one person or multiple people?
- When did they say it?
- Was it today, last week or last month?
- Where did they say it? At a press conference, to a colleague or to a reporter? Why did they say it?
The second batch of questions would revolve around the employee in question:
- When was he/she at work during the last 14 days (i.e. the incubation period for the virus)?
- Who did that person come in contact with? How many fellow employees?
- Will the building be cleaned? When?
- Will it stop production of your products/services?
Everyone has different motivations for speaking out. Is this person trying to score political points in a close election race? Are they out to deliberately sabotage your brand? Or did they perhaps misspeak about something they don’t quite understand? Whatever the reason, lay out the facts as you know them.
Confer with trusted advisors
You’re battling a whirlwind of emotions and struggling to remain calm. Surround yourself with a small group of people whom you trust and outline the situation—either via phone or in person. Get their thoughts and input on the situation.
I recommend working with public relations professionals to help you craft an appropriate timeline and response. There are PR firms that specialize in effective crisis management. These types of firms can be ready with response teams that have crisis communicators on staff. They can respond to the media on your behalf, at a moment’s notice, as soon as a public relations crisis happens.
Outline how you’ll respond
If the allegations are false, lay out why they are false and back up your explanations with facts, not opinion. Make sure you stay “on message.” In other words, devise two or three key points before you call the reporter—and then repeat them again and again, to reinforce your side of the story. Remember that the reporter has no personal stake in this issue. He or she is just out to collect and report all sides of the story.
Most importantly, don’t come off as being “tone deaf.” Keep a pulse on what’s being said in the media and by your customers and employees. Only then can you frame a response that’s appropriate and thoughtful because it won’t be created in a vacuum.
Issuing a press release or statement are effective ways to respond. The press release should state the issue, key messages and facts, as well as have a spokesperson quote. It also needs to answer who, what, when, where and why.
Respond calmly and with facts
Be firm and factual, not defensive. You have every right to be angry if your business has been accused of unethical, even illegal, behavior. But keep your feelings private. Spokespeople who come off as defensive, often appear as though they’re hiding something. Your goal is to outline the situation in a calm and rational way.
A proper crisis communications program will help your organization mitigate negative fallout, much like stopping a viral outbreak. First, identify the involved parties. Second, contain it. And finally, counter it quickly.
Making mistakes along the way won’t damage your brand, but failing to handle properly will leave long-term marks.
Do you have a question regarding your brands messaging and marketing during this time of crisis? Have you faced a similar situation recently and are unsure of what to do next? Contact Ken directly, or register and submit your question for our LIVE, virtual discussion on April 1st as we discuss how to market in the wake of COVID-19.
Kenneth Hitchner is the Director of Content Strategy at CMA, a full-service communications, marketing and association management firm, which has provided its clients with award-winning and proven results for more than 30 years.