My grandmother was the first person to explain to me how crisis PR works.
When I was four years old I broke one of her dinner plates. I didn’t think she’d find out. But she did, and when she did, Grandma asked me if I’d done it. “No Grandma.” Of course, she knew I was lying, and she taught me the first lesson of good crisis management.
When I was seven, I broke her crystal punch bowl. Lip trembling, evidence in hand, I presented myself to her ready for punishment to ensue. I owned up. Grandma asked me how I felt. “Bad.” And then the second lesson of crisis management: was there anything I wanted to say?
Four years later, aged 11, a game of indoor cricket ended with the world’s ugliest porcelain cat losing an ear to a cover drive. Once again, I presented myself to Grandma: “I’m sorry Grandma, I broke your cat.”
She handed me a tube of glue, and the third lesson of crisis management:
“Well, then you’d better get to work and fix it.”
Own up. Say you’re sorry. Fix the problem.
I’m on a bit of a soapbox lately about what PR actually is, because from a crisis management perspective the accuracy of the definition does actually change the behaviour of management. Do we want to fix the problem, or look like we’re fixing it? Tip: if the word Enron means anything to you, you should probably aim for the first option.
For the purpose of this post, since most crisis management is more concerned with fixing stuff than with parties and press junkets, I’m going to use this definition from the Public Relations Society of America.
“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”
Actually, that’s a bit clunky, so I’m going to tweak it to read: public relations helps and organisation build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with its publics.
Mutually beneficial relationships are built on trust and respect for each other. Demonstrating responsibility for our actions and a commitment to doing the right thing – that’s how organisations build trust with their stakeholders. And in turn, when something does inevitably go pear-shaped, stakeholders will trust us to make it right.
So for organisations with a crisis on their hands, I’d like to pose three questions to help keep management honest:
- How are my stakeholders being negatively affected by what’s happening?
- What can I do to rectify that situation?
- How can I best communicate my actions to my stakeholders?
I’d like to think that at least one of this year’s high profile crises could have been averted, if only the bosses had listened to my Grandma.