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Uh-oh. FIRE. An otherwise quiet day has been consumed by a PR firestorm, sparked by an unexpected event that’s now threatening your brand.

Nothing tests the trust and confidence of stakeholders like a crisis or reputational event. It takes no time for a smoldering issue to spread into a wildfire of negative publicity.

The trick is to focus energy and messaging in the first critical hours of a breaking issue, assess the issue’s scope and severity and respond effectively.

In other words, “pour on the water”.

In a perfect world, you would have a bucket of tactics and messages ready in the form of a Crisis Media Management Plan. But this is the real world. Today, you’re fighting this fire in real time as it rages in the headlines.

As you start crafting your approach and response, keep these four goals in mind:

1. Demonstrate that you are addressing the situation sincerely and effectively.
2. Show concern and empathy for those affected/involved.
3. Maintain trust and goodwill of your employees, regulators, customers and neighbours.
4. Get back to normal as soon as possible.

On average, it takes about three years for an organization to recover from a crisis that has damaged its reputation. The sooner that you engage effectively, the sooner you and your organization can get back on the road to recovery.

The best way to do this?

Fill the Void

If there is an information vacuum, someone will fill it: your employees, competitors, social media commentators, opinion leaders or people on the other side of the issue. Use Holding Statements that provide an initial response to the issue without going in-depth. They are intended to fill the media vacuum with an appropriate and timely response until next steps are determined and they are better than “no comment” or a non-response 100% of the time.

Holding Statements cover the facts surrounding the issue (Who, What, When, Where) but stop short of speculating on Why the incident occurred. They are key to managing the first 24 hours of coverage when public interest and attention is at its highest level.

Hone Your Message

Prepare key message(s) that can be delivered in a 15-20 second clip. Write them down – for memory and brevity. Practice these messages out loud (literally) rehearsing them by yourself or with someone you trust.

Give some thought to proof points or concrete examples that support your key messages to build credibility with audiences.

While it’s important to demonstrate a command of the situation, and competency to address it, it’s also important to show concern for those affected. You need to show that you understand how the issue has affected others. Your other customers or stakeholders are watching how you handle this – make sure you’re setting the right tone and sending the right message.

Don’t Hide the Boss

“Duck and cover” is not a strategy. As an organization, you’ll want to demonstrate that you are taking the issue seriously and finding a solution is a top priority. This means ensuring that the CEO – or whoever is most senior and accountable for the situation – is seen to be actively addressing the issue.

This doesn’t mean that organizational leaders must participate in on-camera interviews to address an issue. That’s a decision best made depending on the situation. It does mean, however, that leaders need to be seen engaging in the issue and “on top of it” – whether it’s in the form of an on-camera interview, published statement (print, online, video) or other form of communication.