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Crisis Communication: A field in P.R.

November 20, 2012

Published here on January 8, 2013

There are a variety of different fields associated with public relations, but the most exciting of all of them has to be crisis communication. Who do you turn to when your company has made a huge mistake? When 30 people die of an infection caused by the unsanitary practices of your hospital staff? When an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico goes on and on for months? Or when your mistresses start coming forward to the press after your wife smashes your Escalade with a golf club? The crisis communicator.

The job of the crisis communicator is essentially to be the head of communication in a crisis. Well, duh, you say. But what does that mean? Well, first let’s define a crisis:

A crisis is unexpected and detrimental situation or event. In other words a crisis is in full swing when something happens that can severely damage you or your organization’s reputation, harm some part of society, or compromise the state in which your organization currently resides.

A concrete example is the Tylenol scare of 1982.

Several people in the Chicago area started dying in as a result of consuming Tylenol pills that had been laced with poison. Though the killer was never found, this incident became the textbook case for how a company should respond to a public crisis. Here’s what Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol’s parent company) did:

  • They made public announcements warning people to keep from consuming Tylenol until they uncovered the extent of the poisonings.
  • They issued a recall of Tylenol from the shelves of the entire country, an estimated 31 million bottles and a loss of over $100 million.
  • They created a hotline for the media to call, with pre-recorded statements about the latest updates from which the media could draw quotes.
  • Once the initial crisis was over, Tylenol introduced a new bottle with triple seal tamper-resistant packaging.
  • Then they gave out coupons for $2.50 off.

As a result of this, the media gave Tylenol mostly positive coverage amidst this crisis, and it was all thanks to their response team.

So what does a crisis communicator do day to day? Although it seems as if scandals are constantly happening somewhere, they aren’t repeatedly occurring to the same company. What happens when there’s nothing going wrong?

The motto of a crisis communicator is “not if but when.”

Eventually something bad will happen. We all know this to be true, and it is no different for an organization than it is for an individual.  When there is not an active fire to put out, the crisis communicator’s time is consumed with planning. Planning in the sense of creating prepared responses to any crisis imaginable. Nike is very good at doing this. They have, in their files, a written statement that will be released in the event that a Nike shoe shreds in the middle of a televised sprinting event. They are that specific.

Just like any area of PR, lots and lots of research must be done continually to stay aware of public opinion and general attitudes about certain things. The last thing an organization wants to do in a crisis is make it worse by issuing a statement that is out of touch with the general population.

A pertinent example of this is the recent cancellation of the New York City Marathon. Mayor Bloomberg refused (at least initially) to recognize public opinion when he decided to go through with the race. Eventually, this crisis made itself worse through both social and regular media as the rest of the nation expressed their disagreement with this decision.  Bloomberg cancelled the marathon begrudgingly, and only after public opinion made it very clear. If he had done his research first, he would have realized the fallacy of continuing with the race plans.

So, during the crisis-free times, research and planning occupy the crisis communicator’s work to-do list. But what happens when something goes wrong?

A clear understanding of the media is one of the most essential traits of the crisis communicator.

Once a crisis hits, the media will be calling the PR office constantly anyway, and this is when it’s time to put to use all those prepared statements. You can understand now why it’s foolish to not have these statements ready in advance because it’s difficult to think on one’s feet when the phone is ringing off the hook.

A strong understanding of the media is important for any crisis communicator, namely the fact that journalists have deadlines. They are going to publish a story one way or the other, and if they can’t get a quote from you because you refuse to give it to them, they will get one from somewhere else. Media training is necessary for the crisis communicator because as most PR firms will tell you, talking to the media is not like having a normal conversation. The media will employ blunt and often ridiculous questions (did you mean to kill those 30 patients?) in order to get some type of unplanned reaction.

Scandal sells, and without a patient demeanor, a crisis communicator can easily reveal something or make an off the cuff remark that is skewed once it goes through the reporting process.

In addition to the media, the crisis communicator must keep a variety of other publics informed.

Employees of an organization in the middle of crisis are going to be very interested in the events at hand. It’s a general understanding that employees prefer to hear information about their company from the company itself and not the media. The Enron collapse is often looked to in order to point out the catastrophe that results from the failure to communicate with employees during a crisis.

Consumers are also a huge public that has a stake in the outcome of the crisis. Tylenol’s main concern was for the safety of their consumers. It’s why they recalled all 31 million bottles. Communication with consumers was especially important for them because it was literally a life or death scenario. Every crisis does not have similarly extreme consequences, but every crisis does dictate a strong line of communication between organization and consumer base.

In summary:

A crisis communicator’s work involves researching public opinion, planning statements and reactions to possible crisis scenarios, and maintaining a strong line of communication between an organization and its various publics, specifically the media, employees, and consumers, when a crisis does hit.

If you like working under stress, if you are a good communicator, and if you like to fix things, then crisis communication may just be the field for you.



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