Note: An expanded version of this blog entry will appear in July in Skyscapes, the online magazine for the Kansas Society of CPAs.
At first, I thought British Petroleum handled the spill very well when it told the public it was the group responsible for cleanup, even though the spill may not have entirely been BP’s fault. I hushed the naysayers – my fellow PR colleagues – who said there was way more trouble ahead for BP.
Of course, I realized sooner than last weekend that BP faced a huge PR problem. Every day, it seems BP buries itself deeper and deeper in the mud. The public is distrustful, and for goodness sake, those pictures of birds covered in oil makes my heart sink.
I’m quite sure BP employs a huge PR entity with experienced professionals who totally know what they’re doing. I’m also sure the professionals assert themselves whenever they can to advise BP on what to do. Yet, with all of that preparation, expense and time spent, was BP prepared? From the public view, the answer would be “no.”
Just as you would create a proactive disaster recovery plan, you can create a proactive PR plan to handle the media when they appear on your doorstep. The way to do this is to write a document that covers as many “what if” situations as possible, then provide “action” steps for each situation.
You can be prepared by pointing the media to a designated spokesperson for your company, distributing background information you can share with the media and provide other materials that shows you already did the homework. The media will appreciate your stance, and while they certainly won’t back off of the problem, they may treat you a bit more kindly.
Spokesperson training is essential. Most of the time, the designated person to speak on behalf of the company is the CEO or president, but more often than not, this person isn’t trained to answer the kinds of questions reporters ask when they are working on a story.
Spokesperson training is typically held over the course of one to two days, with tough questions asked in mock interviews that are taped for review and learning. I’ve neither conducted nor participated in a spokesperson training in which the attendees didn’t walk out feeling smarter and empowered, and this includes anyone who walks in at the beginning of training who says he/she did not need to attend because the person already knew how to conduct themselves.
Part of your PR plan should include your internal audiences, stakeholders or anyone else connected to the company, including clients and customers. If a tragedy occurred, you need to communicate immediately to all your audiences, and you can only do this if you are prepared to act within a very short amount of time.
Every situation varies, so there is no one cookie-cutter solution to what you’re going to communicate. However, the more information you can impart without legal repercussions, the better off you’ll be because you were able to tell you audiences what they want to hear: an honest take on the situation and how you’re going to solve it.