When Crisis Knocks: Being PR Savvy through Social Media

December 5th, 2012

By Amy Howell, CEO of Howell Marketing Strategies

Social media has been a game changer for PR folks across the board. No matter what type of business, industry, or organization you are in, social media means you can run for a minute, but you sure cannot hide.

I have been in PR and marketing for more than 20 years, working mostly in B2B organizations, and I have witnessed the drastic shift in how we communicate the corporate messages—good, bad, and ugly. I think that in order to appreciate and use what we’ve learned, it’s sometimes important to look back and think on what worked then, how things have changed, and what lessons we can carry forward to improve our role as PR professionals.

In the “good ole days” when agencies had fat budgets and big offices, often the PR strategy was crafted to “spin” a story a certain way to try and control the outcomes. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it would not. Either way, that control is largely gone with the use of social media, smartphones, and mobile communications.

I hear and read often that companies can’t control their stories. That’s only true if they let it get out of control in the first place. Sometimes it gets out without anyone doing anything. An explosion or fire would be this type of crisis. The media is relentless when it comes to a crisis, and a company has to be ready to be totally “bombarded” and handle all inquiries. A very tough skin is needed for this, as dealing with a heady crisis and doing good PR is not for the weak or inexperienced.

I have only had two really bad crisis client PR projects and—though we got through them as well as we could have under the terrible circumstances—it’s highly stressful and downright scary work. I’ve had CNN, AP reporters, international calls, and the local media all on my back at once, and there is no class or training that can prepare you for the actual day that happens. But I learned a ton, didn’t sleep much, and added great depth to my experience in PR under pressure.

Now, onto the three main points I would like to make. Corporations with big news to tell (good and bad) need to understand a few key points:

  • The art of being proactive and always anticipating what can happen: When crisis comes—often by surprise—you must immediately be ready to anticipate what will happen next. I cannot stress enough the importance of having a crisis PR/communications plan ALREADY WRITTEN before something happens. The most common thing to anticipate is that people love to talk about a crisis, which means you will have two major projects: one is dealing with and getting accurate information to the media (you want them on your team, and they can make or break you) and dealing with comments that are posted on the Internet. Immediately, you need a team that’s social savvy to monitor what’s being said, and you will need this 24/7. How you handle these steps is critical. In dealing with the media, you must be fair and straightforward, and you must set the pace. When we had crisis #1, I set up a system to communicate with all the media and used different tools to post information. The first was the posting of updates and statements as they became available to the top of the client website. This helped us do two things: control information in written statements and mass distribution (we didn’t have time to do press releases). The second tool was the use of the wire; we monitored the Internet. It took a team of four to six people dedicated to this, and I worked remotely in the client’s conference room for days.
  • The discipline and intelligence to use confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements: I hate to say “duh,” but I said it. Companies and organizations that can’t keep information from leaking out deserve what they get. And I would fire any communications staffer immediately if I found out he or she talked about highly confidential information. Rumors cannot exist if you want good PR results. For example, last year, one of my clients (and large employer) announced the decision to relocate its corporate headquarters to downtown Memphis. The CEO, COO, CFO, and legal team made everybody—including me—sign a non-disclosure. I had the pleasure of coordinating the press for the announcement and the event we held onsite. That was a difficult “secret” to keep quiet, but we did it, and that’s proof that companies can indeed control when big news gets announced, how it’s announced, and to whom it’s announced.
  • Telling a story well through both traditional and social: I think social media has given us the transparency we need to find real, truthful information and has forced companies and organizations to be more diligent about being truthful. My dad always told me that if you tell the truth all the time, you never have to worry about telling a story—a powerful lesson. Social media gives us great channels to be truthful and to be transparent. Social media has changed PR in many positive ways, and I think that the positives far outweigh the negatives. All of this is why companies need to already be “in” the game of social. Establish your footprint and tell your story, so that when you have to defend yourself in a crisis, you can. As my good friend and social media consultant @GlenGilmore says, “Build your tribe before you need it.” And believe me, one day you will need it.

Thanks for reading this, and I’d love to hear how social media has helped or hurt you in a crisis.

One comment on “When Crisis Knocks: Being PR Savvy through Social Media

  1. Thanks, Amy, for including my quote in your post–and for a great article.

    Your first point, “being proactive and always anticipating what can happen,” is one that too many companies simply give lip service to. It comes with hard work: actually sitting down with a focus group to consider likely crisis scenarios and mapping out responses and resources.

    You know your products and services. How might they spin out of control? Having an outsider join in on the focus session to let you know when you might be missing something simply because you’re too close to the trees is also a good idea.

    Thank again, Amy!