Spinning out your expenses - how to handle a PR crisis

  • Most of us are, of course, scandalised by the revelations surrounding MPs' expenses claims. Finding out that our elected representatives are troughing away at tax-payers expense to feather their already gilded nests has hit at the very heart of our trust and confidence in the political system.

    The news has temporarily eased the failure of individual banks and the financial crisis in general out of the headlines, but the one thing that both issues have in common is that they are nightmare scenarios for the PR teams of the companies and institutions involved. Rarely the recipients of sympathy, one can only imagine the head-in-hands feeling that these people are suffering as they think how to salvage the reputations of their hapless charges.

    We have seen an evolution in the tactics adopted by PRs in recent weeks, undoubtedly determined by the magnitude or sheer indefensibility of the circumstances they find themselves in. At one time, the standard reaction to a crisis was to deny that one existed and then swiftly follow it up with an attack on the accuser's credibility. One thinks backs to the handling of the infamous dossier used by the Blair government as justification for declaring war on Iraq.

    More recently, denial has given way to attempts at justification (or even laughable claims of "I'm the victim in this") and then gushing apologies and requests for forgiveness.

    The contrast between the banks' approach to the banking crisis and that being taken now by Parliament is marked.

    RBS struggled to throw off its institutionalised arrogance when the scale of the crisis in the bank first emerged. Head of PR, Carolyn McAdam, doggedly issued 'no comment' responses on behalf of her bosses to the frustration of the media and the public alike. Sir Fred Goodwin and Sir Tom McKillop then did little to engender public sympathy with their forced apologies in front of the Treasury Select Committee. Only under new management has RBS shown contrition, which is now being rewarded by public acceptance and early signs of progress.

    In Parliament, we have seen a much more rapid journey from denial through to apology. Last month, Home Secretary, Jacquie Smith, denied any wrong doing over her husband's late-night viewing choices. Since then, once it became apparent that the collective hand had been well and truly caught in the cookie jar, the tactics have changed. MP's have been forced in front of the media, apologies issued, jobs lost and statements of corrective action made. In no way, does this defend the indefensible (or pass comment on the sincerity of the apologies), but it does show how, when faced with a PR crisis, quickly choosing the right response is vital to mitigating the damage.

    Knowing how to handle a PR crisis should form part of the disaster planning in any organisation. With new media, such as Facebook and Twitter, crisis situations, not always founded on reliable facts, can occur very rapidly and it is important to be able to react quickly and appropriately.

    The lessons from the events of 2009 so far are to:
    • Respond promptly and address the public as quickly as possible. Failure to do so only fuels the rumour mill

    • Maintain honesty. Lying or attempting to cover up will be discovered and make a bad situation worse

    • Be informative. If there is a sense that there is more to come out, the story will run and run

    • Be sympathetic to the victims of the crisis. Take whatever steps you can to relieve any loss or anxiety

    • Maintain relationships with the media. A team that is seen to be helping the media will generally receive more favourable treatment, than one that blocks it with a terse 'no comment'.

    A crisis communications plan doesn't have to be a weighty tome, it can be a simple set of guidelines that first considers the types of crises that could occur and then walks through the main steps for dealing with them. Like any form of insurance, to leave such things for another day is tempting, but dangerous. Temporarily diverting PR efforts away from new press releases to writing and fine-tuning a crisis communications plan could prove a valuable investment in the long run.

    Do you have any experience or advice in how to manage a PR crisis? We are particularly interested in hearing opinions from professional PRs on how the current MPs' expenses crisis is being handled.

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