Fears & Reality: Key Takeaways from PRSA’s 2019 Crisis Communication Master Class

July 30, 2019 | Ashley Flear

“What’s your biggest fear?”

On day one of this year’s PRSA Crisis Communication Master Class, speaker Adam Tiourine asked each one of us to answer that question in front of nearly 50 strangers. Adam, along with Helio Fred Garcia and Holly Helstrom, all from Logos Consulting Group, led the two-day professional-development session in Seattle earlier this month.

So, as a public relations professional, what is your biggest fear? And no, we’re not talking about heights or sharks or the number 13. Rather, this ice-breaker question was intended to reveal one thing: what worries you most when it comes to the organization you represent?

One by one, we shared our fears with each other. The responses weren’t all that surprising: an active shooter situation, the death of a patient, being hacked or collaborating with a social media influencer who goes rogue.

But, some members of the group had fears rooted deeply in a lack of preparedness. “What if our company isn’t ready?” worried one participant. “How do I know if I have the ability to lead my team through a crisis?” pondered another.

As PR people and crisis communicators, our primary goal is to protect the reputations of our organizations while preserving the trust we have earned among our key stakeholders.

With that in mind, I have good news, and I have bad news for you.

The bad news is that your company isn’t immune from crises. If you haven’t faced one yet, you’re lucky, sure, but you shouldn’t let that luck fool you or your colleagues in the C-suite into believing you don’t need to prepare.

The good news is that you can prepare now for whatever hypothetical scenario keeps you awake at night.

Crisis Communication Planning: Where to Begin

You may be wondering, where do you even begin after you decide crisis preparedness is right for your organization? If the thought of crisis communication feels daunting, try shifting the way you approach the task. Instead of nervously asking, “What should we say?” reframe the question to, “What would a reasonable person appropriately expect a responsible organization to do?”

Spoiler alert: You’ll likely arrive at the same conclusion, but the latter question is a far more effective starting point and encourages you to think through the needs and expectations of your various stakeholders. Communications supports good actions, and crisis communication is an art, not a science.

From there, remember, as public relations professionals, we have the unique ability to forecast the potential short-and-long-term outcomes of a crisis depending on the content of the first communication. PR people are intuitive in this regard, but executives are naturally suspicious of intuition and often require supporting evidence to make a decision. The key to getting leadership on board with the most effective communication strategy lies in explaining the impact each path could have on your company’s reputation, employee morale, business relationships or even stock price. Never encourage executives to make communications decisions solely on their personal preference or short-term goals; always make decisions based on projected outcomes.

But doing that is easier said than done. Have you ever wondered where the word “crisis” originated? In Ancient Greek, “krisis” was defined as a moment of decision at a turning point where one’s destiny is determined. During a crisis, the decisions your organization make must be a clear and genuine demonstration that you care about those who are directly impacted by the crisis. Certain actions may be uncomfortable for leaders to take in the moment, but you must do whatever it takes to preserve the trust of those who matter most to you. It’s much harder to restore trust in your organization once it has been broken, so every action must be made with the intention of maintaining it in the first place.

“It’s much harder to restore trust in your organization once it has been broken,
so every action must be made with the intention of maintaining it in the first place.”​

Effective crisis preparedness and response is a competitive advantage. When in doubt, think about the historic BP oil spill, the Volkswagen emissions scandal or the Equifax data breach. These seemingly sudden crises could have been anticipated, and they serve as classic examples of failures of readiness. To this day, these brands are suffering the consequences of their own behavior and of responding inadequately.

Remember: when a crisis strikes, the response-expectation clock starts ticking. Silence is not golden, and perception is reality. Don’t allow your key stakeholders to wrongly believe that you don’t care because your organization is scrambling to write the perfect statement.

While you won’t know all the nuances of a crisis in advance, give yourself the ability to face your biggest fear while it is still only your fear and not your reality.

Special thanks to Fred, Adam and Holly for sharing your collective wealth of knowledge and for leading such an important discussion.