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Protecting your reputation in a crisis

September, 2016

Any organisation, no matter how well run, can face a potential public relations crisis. How the situation is handled can make a significant difference to its impact, writes Philip Jones, a director at Tunbridge Wells PR and marketing agency Maxim.

Over the last 21 years, Maxim has helped a range of clients deal with issues that had the potential to cause real damage to their reputation.

The scenarios were all very different and involved organisations as diverse as care homes, manufacturers, utilities, professional practices, educational establishments, airlines and developers.

Develop a crisis comms plan

Those that were existing clients tended to be well-placed to deal with the situation. They already had an understanding of the media – through our work for them – and had been nagged to make sure they had a thought-through crisis comms plan.

These don’t need to be complicated or lengthy documents – just some clear guidelines so that in the event of an unexpected crisis, people already know their roles and responsibilities.

Typically the media section (as opposed to the sections dealing with customers, suppliers, regulators etc) of these plans might include:

  • Agreed spokespeople – those individuals best able to deal with the media under pressure, and preferably media-trained
  • Some template responses to deal with possible sudden crisis scenarios – fire, death/serious injury, accident etc – so you’re not starting from scratch when there are so many other demands on your time
  • Contact numbers – because emergencies don’t just happen between 9am and 5.30pm.
  • Agreed protocols for handling the media – who is the contact person and are queries being answered?

Managing your reputation

In the event of having a bit of notice that there’s going to be a bad news story – such as job losses, a critical regulatory report or a prosecution by the HSE or Environment Agency – you have the luxury of being able to plan in more detail the approach to take. Preparation and careful thought make a real difference to the outcome.

For non-clients, seeking PR advice when a crisis has already broken means you’re invariably on the back foot – it’s generally a question of trying to limit the damage.

Other organisations, who knew they had a pending problem, came to us just in time.

In some cases, their proposed plan of action to deal with any media interest would have made a difficult situation worse.

One strategy involved contacting those journalists who might be likely to cover the story and telling them they weren’t to do so. Another was based on the belief that if they refused to comment then journalists would be unable to report the story. Both tactics would have been doomed to fail.

The importance of the right media strategy

Instead, we were able to sit down with them and think through a proper plan of action. If a situation was unavoidable (for example redundancies), then what was the context? Was it due to external factors? How were affected staff being looked after? What reassurances could there be for other employees?

And where problems had arisen because of human error or poor procedures, what steps had since been put in place? Did the company spokesperson look and sound genuinely contrite? Could a similar event happen again?

At the other extreme, a single allegation on social media of poor practice led one organisation to propose issuing a detailed rebuttal far and wide – something that would only have breathed life into a non-story. Keeping calm, preparing for trouble but doing nothing precipitate proved a much better strategy.

Win friends and influence people

If something has gone wrong and is going to be in the public domain, there will be some negative publicity – and that can’t be helped. But what can be avoided is turning a drama into a far worse crisis.

Journalists also have long memories and how you handle a crisis will colour their future perception of your organisation. It is over 10 years since EUjet suddenly went into administration leaving thousands of passengers stranded overseas, but I still clearly remember the respect the airline’s commercial director earned by making himself available at an incredibly difficult moment to talk to journalists and answer their questions candidly. Had he been able to resurrect the airline, I am sure the media would have given him both their blessing and a second chance.


Philip Jones - Associate

Philip Jones

Maxim / Associate

posted in: advice, media relations, public relations, reputation management,

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