PR Crisis Management, Internet Style

PR Crisis Management

So there you are. It’s around 5:30 in the morning, and you’ve still got another two hours to sleep before you get up for another day in the office. Then the phone rings, and it’s your boss: “WE ARE ON THE COVER OF ONLINE BUSINESS MAGAZINE!”

Welcome to crisis management, Internet style.

Back in the old days, crisis management meant dealing with the press, and disseminating information based on how you wanted to appear. You had plenty of time to get your facts together; you could call several meetings with key advisors, and when you were ready, issue a statement that explained exactly what happened, the way you wanted it explained.

That doesn’t fly anymore.

This is the Internet, where rumors, true or not, can bring down a company within minutes. Information (or disinformation) can spread across the world in seconds. And in this day and age, where the news industry is not only encouraged to send out news the second they get it, but actually rewarded when they do, the days of fact-checking and multi-sourcing information to prove its accuracy are over.

If you’re in charge of safeguarding your company’s message, and keeping it pristine to the public, how do you handle the Internet? How do you perform public relations in such a way, that the end result not only saves face, but prevents those rumors from starting in the first place?

What follows are guidelines for how to survive an Internet PR crisis. Not rules, because each crisis is different. Not a playbook, because you’ll still make up most of it as you go along. But guidelines, designed to help you get through the initial strike of “Oh, no…”

  1. Shut your emotions completely off. Before you do anything else, know that this is not about you personally. It never is. Regardless of whether you’re the PR manager for hugebigcorporation.com or the president of mylittleidea.com, this is not about you, and this is not personal. For whatever reason you’re in a PR crisis, you need to think logically, outside of the company. You need to think like an observer, not like someone in the middle.
  2. Get all key management on the phone, and promptly get them to shut up. Fact of the matter is, there are as many opinions on what happened or didn’t happen as there are employees. That being said, you need to establish one company policy, and require that it’s followed. This means that you designate one person, and one person only, to be the point person with the media. This is usually the Director of PR, but I’ve seen it be marketing people, or CFOs. You do not want the CEO to speak right away. The CEO needs to be running the company, you don’t want him or her wasting time answering every reporter’s question. Once the company has a firm line on what to say, the PR point person can offer that information to the media, allowing access to the CEO on a case-by-case basis.
  3. Don’t lie. If you don’t know the answer, don’t answer it. An “I’ll get back to you on that” is always a better answer than a made up one. The fact remains, if you lie about something and you’re quoted on it in the media, it’s going to be with you for the rest of your company’s life until you’re caught. And usually, you’ll be caught a lot quicker than you imagine. Simply say “That’s a good question. I’m going to check on it and get back to you in 20 minutes.” Then do it. Do not leave the reporter without a call back. Even if you call back to let the reporter know that you’re still looking for the information, that’s better than leaving them hanging.
  4. Have a press release ready to go if needed, then don’t send it out. A big mistake that many companies make is sending out a release before all the facts are out, basically saying nothing. This leads reporters to print what they have, and miss out on the bigger picture, because you haven’t given them the bigger picture. Have the release ready to go, and over the course of the day, keep adding to it. If the crisis is small enough so a press release isn’t warranted, then simply keep it on file. It’ll be good to have for the next time.
  5. Draft an internal e-mail that you read to employees. Do not send it out if you can help it. If you have an organization all in one office building, call them all in for a conference or meeting. If you send out an e-mail to the entire company, it will get to the media. Don’t ask how, and don’t waste time trying to understand where the leak came from. Just accept that it will happen, and don’t send out anything that you wouldn’t want to see in print. If you have numerous offices or sites, try to arrange a conference or video call, either via phone or satellite feed. You’re doing this to keep morale up, to explain exactly what happened, and to remind your company, yet once again, that they should not be speaking to any media. You can’t reinforce this last line enough.
  6. Make sure your voice mail message has alternate ways for the media to reach you. You need to be 100 percent completely accessible to the press for as long as the crisis lasts. If this means canceling personal plans, so be it, or at least be reachable and ready to respond on a moment’s notice. All media employees here have alternate phone, e-mail, pager, and cellular information on their outgoing voice mail. In addition, all employees have access to the Internet from home, allowing them to keep in touch with the office at any time, day or night, weekday or weekend.
  7. Stop into the chat rooms and message boards and read. What is the public saying about your company? If you’re public, what are the market Web sites (Yahoo, Morningstar.com, etc) saying about you in their chat rooms and message boards? How can you use this information to craft a well-worded response to the media? Note: Do not, under any circumstances, respond to any messages or chat requests, no matter how tempting it might be to do so. Online bulletin boards and chat rooms are not the place to preach your company’s philosophy or try to prove your innocence. Just read what other people are saying, and try to gauge reaction.
  8. Keep upper management updated. Over the course of the day, send out a few brief e-mails, offering a few updates as to what’s going on, and what’s expected to happen. By keeping upper management updated, you’re allowing for a better flow of communication throughout the company.
  9. If you don’t already use one, consider hiring both an online and offline clipping service to follow what’s being said about your company. Luce and Burrell’s are two such services, but there are many more out there. These companies will track all forms of media coverage, both online and traditional; about your company and selected keywords you give them.
  10. Remember that there is no such thing as “off the record.” There are a few journalists out there who will try to befriend you during this nightmare, and ask you things like, “Wow… Listen, just between you and me, what really happened?” Next thing you know, that’s their headline. There is no “off the record.” Consider anything you say to a journalist fair game.
  11. Always remember rule 1: It’s not personal. You’ll get through this, and by tomorrow, it’ll be some other company’s turn in the fire. Smile, always maintain professionalism, and most importantly: work the problem and find the solution. The incident has already happened. Don’t rehash, focus on what you’re going to do to fix/prevent/make better the situation.