Don’t let a PR crisis take your company over a cliff

Debra DeShongJuly 5, 2016

Debra DeShong | July 5, 2016

Don’t let a PR crisis take your company over a cliff

While there are many lessons to be learned from the Volkswagen emissions scandal, for corporate communicators, the chief takeaway is this: Never take consumers’ faith in your brand for granted. Even a beloved brand like VW will be raked over the coals by public opinion when caught cheating, breaking the law or endangering public safety.

For VW, once-strong customer and investor confidence isn’t merely dented. It’s wrecked. When the public knows you’ve hid knowledge of illegal activities or product flaws that might endanger the public, lied to the media and regulators, and been less than forthcoming with bad news — well, they’re understandably slow to forgive.

Let’s hope your company never sees a scandal of international proportion. But when a crisis does arise you need to be prepared, and the principles of managing a crisis are the same, no matter the scale.

Here are the basic rules for guiding your organization through a crisis with credibility intact:

  1. Contain the crisis as much as possible. A crisis is rarely solved in one news cycle, so I’m not talking about just making it go away. But your immediate concern will be to keep the entire company from coming to a screeching halt, with every department involved in dealing with the crisis. Make sure there is strong leadership still managing the day-to-day of the operation.
  2. Create the crisis team. This is quite possibly one of the most important first steps you can take and could actually be planned in advance. Make sure you identify decision makers who are accessible to take action immediately when that’s necessary. Also choose spokespeople who are the only representatives authorized to speak on the crisis; this helps keep wrong information from getting released. Keep this leadership team small, tight and controlled, and keep the team informed and on message.
  3. Gather the facts. There are no do-overs in the media. If you are under fire, anything you say or put out will not be given the benefit of the doubt if you have to amend or retract it. When you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, your only acceptable answer is, “We can’t answer that at this time.”
  4. Identify what is a communications problem, and what isn’t. When the drilling rig Deepwater Horizons exploded in the Gulf Coast in 2010, no interviews or talking points, or strategic communications was going to help BP rehabilitate its brand until it stopped the oil from flowing.
  5. Internal communications are just as important as dealing with the media. Everyone in your organization needs to know what is happening and how to respond to questions from partners, vendors, supporters and so on. Don’t forget to communicate with your own people.
  6. Answer attacks and allegations before they become fact. When a longtime client of mine disappeared under suspicious circumstances, his business associates used his private plane to meet up to deal with unfolding events. Because his plane was being used, the media pushed the theory that he was alive and in hiding. This had implications for the investigation, and the conspiracy theory persisted for years. If the communications team had been permitted to explain, we could have squashed the rumors quickly.
  7. Don’t lie and don’t let anyone else lie either. This may seem obvious but it’s not. Don’t lie, and when caught, definitely don’t lie again by denying it. In January, the new Volkswagen chief executive told National Public Radio, “We didn’t lie.” But the entire world knew they had.
  8. Don’t hide from the press. Instead, engage. Use all of your credibility and capital to try and shape the coverage. Engage the media in background conversations and encourage them to talk to your surrogates to help round out their coverage.
  9. Listen to the lawyers. If your crisis has serious legal and political ramifications, you must work in concert with your lawyers. There will be more at stake than getting a media story right and you don’t want to complicate the crisis by deepening the legal impact.
  10. Rip off the band-aid. If you uncover information that is damaging to your organization, get it all out. Don’t just drip it out. When the Japanese auto parts company Takata first learned of the faulty air bags they had sold and installed in more than 60 million cars in the United States alone, they stalled for months. Two years and several Congressional hearings later, the company is still struggling to survive and pay for the mandated recall.
  11. Above all, maintain your credibility as a media professional. If you aren’t comfortable saying something or putting a statement out under your name, don’t do it. You will need your credibility to help your organization rebuild once the crisis subsides — or to move on if the organization does not survive.

Debra DeShong Debra leads the Subject Matter Public Affairs practice, which provides clients with a range of services including strategic communications planning, media relations and crisis communications. Debra has worked with clients around the world on everything from complex, high-level litigations, to coalition building and launching new initiatives. She has successfully counseled several presidential appointees through the confirmation process and overseen the initial planning for their tenures in their new positions. Debra holds a Master’s Degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago, and a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Fairfield University in Connecticut.