PR Today: Crisis Communications Shouldn’t Wait for a Crisis

Organizations are fixated on what the news media will do to them when something bad happens.

They dutifully write crisis communications plans and tuck them away, awaiting the dreaded phone call from a breathless reporter. But a crisis plan does little more than add a large dose of false security.

Sooner or later something bad is going to happen. Sometimes it’s a genuine disaster. Other times it’s nothing more than an embarrassing incident, like the CEO running off with his secretary.

Regardless, it’s going to stir up media trouble. In the worst cases, it’ll bring TV trucks screeching to your front door for a live shot on the evening news. Lesser incidents will bring a spate of phone calls from the newspapers.

There’s nothing more off-putting than having a microphone poked in your face while you’re racing to your car by a reporter no older than your youngest daughter telling you, “You’re on live.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. And shouldn’t.

Not that crises aren’t going to arise. They are. But, if you take the right preventative measures, you can lessen their severity and perhaps even avert them altogether.

Here’s how.

First, accept that a crisis is going to happen. Probably when you least expect it, usually on the eve of your annual stockholder’s meeting. This realization is sobering, but will bestow a certain level of peace.

What will pay dividends is a program of prophylactic public relations. I call it my “jelly bean theory.” Sounds childish, but it works.

Understand that the media play a game of “kindergarten justice.” They can incriminate you without due process and with impunity. After all, most believe they have uncovered the real truth in their stories.

The jelly bean idea is simply that you place as many positive beans in the jar of public opinion as you can over time, then, one day, some nasty event is going to take jelly beans out of the jar.

So what are positive jelly beans?

The media aren’t going to buy cheap stunts intended to give people a warm, fuzzy feeling about your organization. Ain’t gonna happen with today’s self-righteous, all-knowing reporters and editors. Similarly, social media users today have become very good at sniffing out the imposters.

You have to search high and low for good things your organization is doing. Really good things.

Then you have to tell the public about them, not in a self-serving, boastful way, but in a low-key, matter-of-fact manner that suggests you’re not beating your own chest for your own ends.

This can be done through news releases, Tweets, Facebook and blog posts and other ways. But better still, invite a reporter/blogger or two to your next free clinic or your next canned food drive.

Better still, nurture personal relationships with members of the media — traditional and social — in your town. Sit down with them and talk openly about your organization. Invite them for a visit (not for lunch; they can’t accept it and will think you’re trying to buy them off with a tuna sandwich). Give them a low-key tour. Introduce them to the movers and shakers.

Get to know them as humans doing a job and not as adversaries. Demonstrate that they can trust you. Let them know that you understand that their job is to get the story and make a deadline, and you’re here to help them do just that.

Reporters are, by nature, suspicious. So getting beyond distrust ain’t easy; plus it takes time and uncomfortable honesty. But, when crunch time comes, it’s worth the effort.

In the end, human nature prevailing, when the fit hits the shan you have a relationship with the reporter and a jar full of feel-good jelly beans. All you can expect is fair treatment, a chance to tell your side, and for a balanced story.

Is it guaranteed? Nope. But it’s worth the effort.

So, start today not just with a crisis communications plan, but building a positive balance in your media relations savings account.

Your goal at the end of the day will be that when a reporter thrusts a microphone in your face in the parking deck, you can say, “Remember me?”