Offensive and Defensive PR

When you're under attack like the Spartans, you need to close ranks (source of image)

Is Public Relations (PR) always about "sugar and spice and everything nice"? Are there situations where you have to close ranks and fight to defend your turf?

While the social age has heralded a more open culture of sharing and trust, publicists still need to be circumspect in the way they communicate. Here we can take the cue from the Bible, which states in 1 Corinthians 10:23 that...

"Everything is permissible"-but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"-but not everything is constructive.

Should PR folks keep secrets close to our chest or should we reveal all and sundry? How do we know when to blab and when to button down?

The answer lies in context. Using the metaphor of war, we need to understand if the situation calls for an offensive or a defensive mode of PR.

Let me go through each in turn.

Going on the Offensive

Like a striker in a football field or a forward in a basketball court, the goal here is to score. In the offensive mode, PR folks become proactive publicists, spinning stories and pitching them to the media - mainstream, social or citizen.

Here, the communications environment is often benign. Your organisation and its brands have consistently performed well, achieved positive breakthroughs, won industry awards, or gained the love and affection of your communities. Customers are happy, shareholders are celebratory, and your CEO just wants to throw a big party.

Offensive PR is about finding ways to diversify and spread your influence. You want to trigger off as many positive and varied news stories as possible in multiple media outlets.

In this scenario, you should brainstorm over possible news angles targeted at specific media outlets. Create PR stunts and events that stir the imagination and generate headlines. Develop exclusives like sneak previews, behind-the-scenes, chairman/CEO interviews, or "how-it-was-made"s. Allow as many of credible spokespersons (specialist employees, customers, board members) to share the "good news" as possible.

You would also want to create as many photo and video opportunities as possible. Curate and choreograph your events to achieve "virality" and "share-ability". Spread the word in your own digital platforms - websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels - and encourage your fans and advocates to do so.

Finally, work with your marketing colleagues to organise contests, interactive games and promotions to blow it all up - the bigger and louder, the better.

Defending Your Reputation

Unfortunately, the halcyon days of parties and pizzas don't last forever. There will be times when things just screw up - a factory goes up in flames, workers go on strike, or a customer injured himself seriously at your premises. Or perhaps a potentially sensitive bit of information has been leaked to the media.

When the sh*t hits the fan, the goal of defensive PR is to converge as much as possible. In other words, battle down the hatches, close the doors and windows, and ensure that information is controlled and managed tightly.

Here, the 3 Cs of clarity, coherence and consistency is key. Also, aim for a single source of official information - preferably the most senior guy around (Chairman or CEO) - and keep him or her as the key spokesperson. In the absence of the head honcho, the VP or Director of PR could take his place.

If the news event is a disaster which is still "live" (eg an ongoing fire or a missing ship and plane), you need to provide regular and frequent updates on all your online and offline channels. When a significant milestone has occurred (eg bodies are found or a culprit is nabbed), call for a news conference fronted by your CEO or Chairman to clear the air.

Should the event be more embarrassing than life threatening (eg a senior executive has committed fraud), your role as a publicist is to limit any "collateral damage". The more specific information you can provide on the case (without giving away sensitive data), the sooner you're able to abdicate yourself in the court of public opinion.

The key thing here is for you to influence and gain control over the conversation as much as possible. Be the first to break the news. Divert all public queries, uncertainties, and rage back to your official platforms.

The more you're seen as a trusted and reliable source of information in bad times, the more confidence you're able to instil in your customers and members of the public.

What has your experience with offensive and defensive PR been like?

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