Telling the Bad News

Crises can be opportunities if handled well, as these Chinese characters show (courtesy of tingilinde)

One of the most important skills PR practitioners need to know is crisis communication. That is when things go wrong but need to be made public. Public listed companies would probably be most familiar with this when sharing their quarterly earnings reports.

Hiding the truth is probably one of the worst things to do in such a situation. The widespread availability of information and records through both the internet and public libraries makes it difficult for one to fudge. Sooner or later the truth will come out, and it would be far better coming from you rather than a third party source.

At the same time, one shouldn't spill one's entire corporate life history. Stick to the information and facts that is pertinent to the specific case and try not to sway from your original point. Sometimes, too much information can lead to wrong conclusions or a negative snowballing effect - both of which are highly undesirable.

So how should one spill those less than fresh beans?

First, be clear about all the facts, figures, and information involved in the case. Do not be caught flat-footed when facing a persistent reporter who is trying to dig in deep. If you are unsure or do not know the answer despite all the preparations, say so and let them know that you will get back to them with the required information.

Next is to be accessible and available to the media for interviews or requests for soundbites. Where possible, the chief executive of the organisation should be fielded for such queries as this reflects greater sincerity and openness. If he or she is unavailable, a senior level spokesperson should be next.

One should also be sincere and honest about the mistakes, and not be seen to be defensive. It is fine to say sorry and be apologetic about slip ups when they happen. However, this needs to be calibrated according to the gravity of the incident. A failure to meet third quarter earnings forecasts isn't quite the same as a Tylenol poisoning saga!

It is also important to prepare comprehensive lists of FAQs and to rehearse all potential scenarios in advance. Television cameras in particular can be quite unforgiving to executives who are seen to fumble, stammer or twitch in nervousness when posed with a stinker. Practice makes perfect, especially when facing an angry crowd.

In the case of an ongoing saga (if one is ever unfortunate enough to encounter this), one should strive to tell the story in one's own words first, rather than let others do it for you. Create an official news source - blogs may be particularly useful in this case - and update it frequently with facts, photographs, video clips, sound bites and other information that may be needed. Being proactive in this case will help you to gain a foothold on an unrolling incident.

Finally, one should cast one's eyes towards the future, and share as much as possible about corrective actions. These should be done as soon as possible, with an eye towards restoring public confidence in the organisation. Here, details would be most useful and the clearer and more well defined the action plan is, the better.

Sharing the negative news needn't always be a bad thing, if done in a correct manner. We are all human after all, and no organisation is perfect (despite what publicists like us would have you believe). What's important is ensure that one manages it well, with the right dose of empathy and sincerity, and look towards bouncing back as quickly as possible in the near future.

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