Recently, I’ve seen a few women-run businesses face a PR crisis. No one likes to be criticised, especially publicly so I’d like to ensure women entrepreneurs feel equipt to handle a situation which can make us feel vulnerable, scared and angry as the reputation of our business is at stake. It has been adapted from a public relations crisis management plan normally handed out to corporates.

Every business will at one time or another experience a situation that could potentially impact its reputation, operations, and financial stability. In these fast-paced digital times, the speed at which stories and issues can unfold is phenomenal. We’ve seen the rise of citizen journalists who can take photos and videos of incidents on their mobile devices to send instantly to media organisations. Lobby groups and individuals can now report their grievances through social and traditional media more quickly and with greater intensity than ever before severely damaging businesses.

Larger organisations, political parties or public figures have media advisors on their team trained to both avoid a crisis and deal with one if it unfolds.  But as entrepreneurs, most of us don’t have the luxury of a PR or media advisor on our team to handle a crisis. We may have marketing people to look at the odd negative review or trolling on social media, but even then you need a more consistent and diligent response. (I will write about this issue soon)

The advice I’m giving here is generic. It’s not intended to fill all needs but outline options for if and when you are in the midst of a PR storm. Be aware of other issues, including legal and financial consequences, must be taken into consideration at this critical time.

What is a PR crisis?

A PR crisis is any situation threatening the reputation of your brand. There are many examples of PR crisis situations including immoral or inappropriate conduct by an employee or senior figure in your business, a disaster or accident causing harm to employees and/or members of the public. It may also be where the media or general public perceive business didn’t act in an appropriate way

1. Select a Crisis Management Response Team (CMRT)

When a situation arises which is perceived to be a PR crisis or possible crisis the first reaction should be for the business head or next in line to confirm all facts relating to the incident and select a Crisis Management Response Team (CMRT). Even if you are a solo entrepreneur, you’re going to want and need advisors, whether that be PR, legal or both.

A CMRT meeting should be held as soon as possible after you become aware of the incident and also include anyone who can provide insight into how the disaster unfolded, such as a witness or employees.

The meeting should:

  • Ensure everyone is aware of the seriousness of the situation, short and long-term consequences.
  • Establish if an external expert needs to be called in to consult on the crisis.
  • Identify who may criticise the business publicly.
  • Develop an action plan around what to say and how to inform your stakeholders, e.g. clients or customers and suppliers plus media.

2. Plan for a media onslaught

It’s vital to have a guide for handling the media. The frontline staff of a business will often have the initial contact by phone, email, social media or in person with journalists. How they handle this contact is a reflection of the business and will reflect its media coverage. Frontlines staff should:

• Treat the media at all times respectfully.
• Tell the journalist they’re not authorised to comment on behalf of the business.
• Take the journalist’s details and tell them you’ll arrange for a call back as soon as possible.
• Immediately tell the appropriate supervisor of the query.
• Avoiding giving information to the media as “off the record” or even say “no comment”. Treat any information or comment to journalists as going to be used in coverage, even if given in confidence.

All of your frontline staff should receive basic training on the points listed above even before a PR crisis because often the first you’ll hear about it will be from a journalist seeking a comment.

3. Select a media spokesperson

To maintain consistency in messaging only the company head or an authorised person (decided by the CMRT) should provide comment. Public relations advisors will decide upon the best format for each media response such as:
• Phone call/interview.
• Holding statement (see below) or press release.
• In person interview or media conference.

4. Write a holding statement

In the event of an incident attracting immediate media attention, it may be necessary to issue a holding statement before all the details are available such as:

“We confirm that (state the nature of the incident) occurred at (state place) at (state time). This incident is being investigated and dealt with at the moment by (who). We’ll issue a full statement at the earliest possible time. We appreciate your co-operation on this matter. For further media information contact (details of public relations officer).

5. Have media training before a crisis hits

When a crisis happens, there’ll be minimal time for training, so its best to ensure all potential spokespeople are given media training in your organisation. This training should include information sessions on how the media operates along with role-playing and interview practice.

A business involved in a public relations crisis must understand it will be highly emotive and the media can be relentless in their pursuit of someone to blame. It is vital everyone stays calm, works together, anticipates likely worst-case scenario interview questions and assists the spokesperson prepare answers to what could be a media onslaught.

Below is a list of possible questions you may be asked by a journalist:
• Can you tell us what happened?
• Who is to responsible for what happened?
• How long have you known about the problem?
• How could you have not known about the problem?
• Why didn’t you act earlier to prevent the situation?
• How much will this situation impact your business?
• Do you admit negligence?
• Do you admit you were at fault?
• What are you doing to help those affected?

For many of these questions, especially those that may have legal implications such as around negligence and admitting fault, public relations and legal advisors must together to determine appropriate ways for the spokesperson to answer.

To add to this post, I’ve also asked colleague Publicity Genie founder  Annette Densham for some of her tips. Annette is also a highly experienced journalist with stints across various leading media organisations, including The Australian newspaper.

Annette’s number one tip is to remember a public relations crisis can be extremely stressful.

“My biggest advice is to make sure you have emotional support because you’ll need someone you can trust and let your feelings out in confidence,” she says.

However, Annette warns about acting emotionally during the crisis.

“You don’t want a knee-jerk reaction so think through the worst-case scenarios about what they can say about you or your business then work out a response.

“You’ll feel like running and hiding or shutting up shop but don’t panic because the storm will pass.”

If you look at the news on a daily basis, you will see individual public figures political parties, companies, schools, health care providers and yes smaller businesses too dealing with a PR crisis. Unfortunately, we can’t make you immune from criticism, but help guide you to “weather the storm”.