I recently attended a panel discussion presented by the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island on crisis communications. Speakers from Stony Brook University, PSEG-Long Island, Good Samaritan Hospital and Nassau BOCES shared their thoughts and best practices.
One of the speakers reminded the audience that crises eventually come to an end and life goes back to normal. That may be true, but the fallout from a scandal never goes entirely away. Like with herpes, the sores reemerge from time to time.
I experienced this firsthand when I was public relations director for The City College of New York. In 1951, seven CCNY men’s basketball players were arrested and accused of taking bribes to fix games in a point-shaving scandal. This happened less than a year after CCNY won both the NCAA and NIT national titles, a feat never repeated.
Whenever a new sports scandal arose, AP would send out a list of the biggest sports scandals of modern times and CCNY would always be on it. There was nothing I could do about it even though more than 60 years had passed.
We live in an era rife with scandal: The Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar scandals in the world of higher education; the politicians and celebrities brought down by #metoo era accusations of sexual misconduct; the acts of child abuse and subsequent coverup in the Roman Catholic Church, Donald Trump’s extramarital affairs with a porn star and a Playboy magazine model, etc., etc.
It’s not only about sex. Just ask the governor of Virginia, who was accused of wearing blackface makeup or a KKK hood in a 1984 yearbook photo and is under pressure to resign. Do we know who has skeletons in the closet and when they will erupt?
Other crises beside scandals confront organizations. Disasters, both natural and man-made, strikes, supply chain disruptions, bankruptcies, environmental problems, hostile takeover bids and the loss of the CEO or other key personnel can cause sleepless nights for a crisis communications manager. They can even pose existential threats to the enterprise and/or its leadership.
Public relations careers have been made or broken over crisis communications. Crises thrust the communications chief into the spotlight so he or she better prepared. When bad news happens, the media will be there in a flash. You’d be surprised by how fast a news team can travel from Midtown Manhattan to West Harlem.
Here are some takeaways from the panel discussion:
- The crisis communicator’s role is to help the media shape the narrative of the story. However, when he or she doesn’t know the facts, it is best to say so. Then, he or she needs to get them for updates later on. Relationships with trustworthy people within the organization can be of great help in doing this.
- There is a reason corporate spokespeople use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” when talking about the victims of an incident. An apology can be construed as an admission of guilt if and when the matter goes to trial. The communications director and corporate counsel need to work together to “stay on message.” However, it is OK to push back if counsel impedes telling the organization’s side of the story.
- Having good relations with the media people who cover the organization is crucial. Also, when the organization has had positive coverage in the past and has a track record of doing good in the community it can build a reservoir of goodwill that it can draw upon when something bad happens. This is when proactive media relations pay off. Even though reporters may pass on story pitches, they will, at least, be somewhat familiar with the organization and what it does.
Skilled outside public relations counsel can help organizations too small to have a communications staff work with the media both proactively to promote the enterprise as well as in times of trouble. Please get in touch if I can be of help.