April wasn’t a good month for one of my clients.

They were defrauded a substantial amount of money through no fault of their own – and banks and the federal police were involved.
Without going into any of the particulars, I will say that I supported this business through the process of attempting to recover the funds. (This is by no means a particular area of expertise for me!).

What this did reinforce to me, however, is the importance of proper crisis management procedures. In their case, it’s probably not a scenario they could have envisaged, but there are lots of scenarios that businesses can plan for.

This is particulary true when it comes to PR crisis management.

Having worked for MPs and major brands, I’ve dealt with my share of hostile journalists and marketing departments in crisis. So I thought I’d share a few little pearls of wisdom for staying cool in a PR crisis based on what I’ve learnt.

Keep these tips in mind should your business or company be unfortunate enough to deal with its own PR crisis, and they’ll help see you through.

Stop and breathe
Have you just found out about a PR crisis? Are you being savaged on social media for an ad you didn’t quite think through? Has one of your senior staff behaved badly and now it’s in the public domain? Did your company do something dodgy? (Just look to the big banks for inspiration!).

Your first step is to stop and breathe. Tell the journalist on the phone you’ll call him/ her back. Tell your staff not to say – or post – anything. And call your senior staff together immediately. There’s a sweet spot when it comes to these crises… Take too long to respond and you’ll be criticised. But get the tone of your response wrong, and it’s much harder still to come back from it. So take a moment, or a few hours, to come together with those you trust the most and workshop your response.

Seek advice
You may need legal advice, or seek the advice of a PR company that’s used to handling these sorts of crises. Perhaps you have these skills in-house. If so, call on the teams or individuals with these skills to assist with your decision-making. Seek their support to get the tone – and in some cases the legality – of your response right.

Keep it real
As a consumer, when we’re disappointed in a brand or person, most of us are forgiving when we feel they’re genuinely apologising. Of course, there can be scenarios where you feel you’re not in the wrong at all. You might have been defamed, or the story could be a complete fabrication. In these scenarios keeping it real might involve sticking to your guns and saying “we know these claims are false, we don’t tolerate this kind of behaviour, and we’ll defend ourselves”.

However, if you are in the wrong, a genuine apology delivered swiftly is key. In simple terms, going with a straightforward message – “we messed up and we’re sorry” – is usually best. Last year I wrote an article about Coopers’ collaboration with The Bible Society. It’s a good example of how failing to keep it real initially only makes the fall-out worse.

Make it right
When it comes to these crises, there’s usually two parts to an apology. The first is saying sorry – and the second part is making it right. If you’re a politician whose stuffed up this might involve stepping down from your post (a la Barnaby Joyce). If you’re a company it might involve sacking those in senior roles. We’ve seen this recently when AMP chair Catherine Brenner stepped down following what’s been described as “damning evidence” of misconduct by company staff.

But making it right can also involve much bolder steps. Where a company has been savaged over its environmental credentials, it should consider how these policies can be changed for the better. Where issues with a bad company culture are exposed, the brand should articulate what steps it will take to address these. As Anita Roddick says, “My passionate belief is that business can be fun, it can be conducted with love, and a powerful force for good.” Increasingly, consumers are loyal to brands that make good global citizens, so consider how your brand can resurrect its image post-crisis, and prove you intend to be a brand with a global conscience that’s driven by more than just profit.

Remember, this too will pass
Finally, while the relentless 24-hour news and social media cycle can spur on your shitstorm, remember that in the vast majority of cases, that storm will pass. Just like Fawkes the Phoenix (sorry, I had to throw in a Harry Potter reference for Gen Ys), brands too can emerge from the ashes and be reborn. Plus there’s always rebranding (there’s almost nothing I love more!), so it could be an opportunity for a fresh name and image too!

So when crises hit, remember to stop and breathe, seek the advice of experts, keep it real and genuine when you do respond, and consider how you can really make it right.

I’ll do well to remember my own advice the next time I’m supporting a brand or person through their own PR crisis too. After all, no-one’s perfect!
Need crisis management training? KIS offers tailored training for companies and individuals, so get in touch [email protected]
Image: ABC