From Reporting on PR Crises to Managing Them, Preparation Is Paramount
“My name is Steve Tellier, and I’m an investigative reporter.”
Those are the last words most people want to see in their inbox or hear on their voicemail. But it’s how I began countless emails and phone calls during my time as an investigative journalist, when I would seek information, answers and official statements from the targets of my reports. Like thousands of other journalists, I was simply doing my job. But often, I was also creating a public relations crisis.
By the time I hit ‘send’ on such an email, I had conducted extensive research, consulted with colleagues, and spoken with key experts. I always aimed to know more about the issue I was investigating than the person on the receiving end of my inquiry – to be as prepared as possible before I formally posed tough questions to the people or organization at the center of my news story.
After years of instigating crises as a reporter, I’m now helping our clients manage them, offering my expertise in crisis communications. But whether you’re working a big story or trying to limit a story’s damage, one constant is clear: preparation is paramount.
This begs the obvious question: How can you possibly prepare for an email you haven’t yet received? A social media post that hasn’t yet gone viral? A crisis that doesn’t yet exist?
The key is using the same investigative tools journalists wield – thorough research, thoughtful consultation, and expert input – and directing them inward, at your own organization. It’s an exercise that, like news reporting, also requires the posing of tough questions – except you’re now asking them of your own organization:
- What kinds of PR crises are most likely to impact us?
- How would we manage each variety of crisis?
- Who would speak on behalf of our organization?
- Who would they speak to?
- And what would they say?
The answers to these questions can form the foundation of a crisis communications plan. It can serve as a road map for handling virtually any scenario that could negatively impact your organization: a discrimination controversy, wrongful termination claim, suspected financial impropriety, sexual misconduct allegation, and a slew of other issues that, at some point in time, impact nearly all companies and entities, regardless of size or sector. Knowing how you and your colleagues would respond to each of these scenarios before they materialize is vitally important for the long-term health of any modern organization.
When I was a reporter, the way my initial inquiry was handled would often reveal broader truths about the organization as a whole. A disjointed, dismissive, or disingenuous response was often indicative of entity-wide dysfunction and is akin to blood in the water for investigative journalists. That response to a preliminary call or email could be the difference between a manageable crisis that recedes quickly and an escalating situation that unfolds over the course of weeks or months.
Nowadays, the collective public, often in the form of social media, is much quicker to diagnose an inadequate initial response than any individual reporter – and far less forgiving. Emphasizing PR crisis management during periods of calm is a crucial step toward ensuring your organization is ready to deliver that response when inevitable turbulence arrives. Because whether it happens five years from now or tomorrow, you will get that email, that social media post will go viral, and that crisis will very much exist.