Q. My small business is facing what could be a PR crisis. One of our local television stations may be planning to run an unflattering piece about my business. Do you have any advice for how to handle this effectively and minimize the damage?
A. First, if 60 Minutes calls, hang up! Seriously, the five tips below will be helpful when you are facing a PR crisis.
Have a plan for dealing with the media – Your first decision is whether you will accept an interview to comment on the story. If you choose not to comment, it won’t stop the media outlet from running your story. They will probably say something that indicates you declined to comment. However, you will avoid being put on the hot seat and potentially being made to look bad on camera. This may also allow you to avoid having your face on the local news.
If you do choose to comment, beware of several things. You are highly unlikely to convince the reporter not to run your story. Your interview will be edited. The media outlet can choose to take your comments out of context and may simply misunderstand what you are trying to say. Therefore, if you are going to accept an interview, have a very simple message and stay on point. Don’t get sucked into conversations for which you are not prepared.
Determine who will speak to the media – Whether you plan to speak to the media or not, you don’t want to have random employees, who may not know the whole story, interviewed. Communicate to your employees that they are to refer all requests for interviews or statements to a specific person. If you are going to communicate with the media, identify a specific person to be the spokesperson. In a small business it may be the owner. In larger concerns, you may have an employee such as the head HR communicate with the media. Regardless of who speaks, make sure that the person has a concise message and stays on point.
Consider hiring professional help – Depending on the size and severity of the story, you may be well advised to hire a professional who has experience in crisis management. Such people can provide useful input into how to handle a difficult situation. If you are likely to face criminal or civil charges as a result of the report, consult an attorney who has experience with these types of issues.
Don’t do things to make the situation worse – If you are facing charges of unsafe working conditions in your plant, this is not the time to give the VP of Manufacturing a big bonus. This may seem obvious, but it is amazing how often companies make mistakes like this when they are under the spotlight. Our advice is to be very careful about handing out bonuses, promoting people or holding company celebrations. Don’t let your actions make it look like you aren’t taking the issue seriously.
Own up to your shortcomings – If you have made mistakes, our advice is to own up to your shortcomings, fix them and take what you have coming. Trying to cover things up almost always makes matters worse. With this said, if you are facing criminal or civil prosecution, we suggest that you follow the advice of your attorney.
Of course you will be better off to avoid such situations by not engaging in activities that are illegal, immoral or unsafe. Further, it is important to create a culture in your company that doesn’t tolerate such behavior. It is important to have checks and balances so that it is unlikely that one rogue employee can consistently behave in a way that will get the company in trouble. However, if the time comes when you and your company are on the hot seat, these five tips will be helpful.