Career Information

Crisis Communications & Public Relations

An environmental disaster. A lie uncovered. An unsavory action swept under the rug. When a brand is under attack, its public relations team is never far away, because one of the key elements in overcoming a crisis is handling it well. And when that doesn’t happen, the consequences can be severe.

“When students complained about issues [related to race, leadership, and benefits for workers] at the University of Missouri, university president [Timothy M. Wolfe] ducked the issue,” says Dr. Tom Vizcarrondo, a corporate marketing professional with more than 20 years’ experience and a Ph.D. in mass communications, “So by the time the press got hold of the story, the issue reached a crisis point, and the president found himself defending the underlying problems and defending why he didn’t address those problems in the first place.”

Vizcarrondo, a course director in the Public Relations master’s degree program at Full Sail University, uses his own experience in the industry to teach crisis communications in Full Sail’s Reputation Management Strategies course, as well as covering how PR teams can proactively think about a brands’ public appearance at all times. Below, he shares how PR professionals can navigate a crisis.

React and respond quickly.
Even without directly solving a crisis, timely addressing it – typically within an hour – shows the public that the brand is taking issues seriously and working on a resolution. It can also help maintain credibility too, says Vizcarrando: if a company or client is quick to acknowledge mistakes, it makes them more legitimate when handling future issues.

A recipe for disaster: When brands choose not to respond because they’re trying to hide the truth. “If you decide, ‘We’re not going to respond,’ because you truly believe this is a minor situation, then you might be okay,” says Vizcarrondo, whose research on media regulation and policy has been published nationally. “But don’t choose not to respond because you’re avoiding the issue and don’t want people to know the truth.”

Have a crisis plan ready to go.
A crisis communications plan should include documents with detailed instructions for how a brand plans to respond to a crisis. “In this plan, you should already have some standard language that you can have ready for an immediate press release that says, ‘We are aware of the situation. We’re working on it. We’re going to be posting updates on our Facebook page and website.’ This way, you can really start addressing the crisis because your initial response has already been taken care of.”

This plan should be reviewed by senior management and updated every few months, says Vizcarrondo, to make sure everything is still applicable.

Understand it’s not the PR team’s job to fix the problem.
There’s a big difference between crisis management and crisis communications. Executives decide how to fix a problem, and PR professionals efficiently communicate how that problem is being fixed. As a result, PR and executive teams should work closely when handling a crisis, to assure all parties are on the same page.

“Think about the BP oil spill [from the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010] – that was not a PR crisis, that was an environmental crisis,” says Vizcarrondo. “The brand needs to figure out how to stop the oil that’s spewing out into the gulf, and the PR team will handle telling key stakeholders what’s going on, what they can do, and what they can expect going forward. A PR team can only help so much.”

Don’t jump to conclusions.
It can take up a year to manage a crisis, so don’t call something a total loss within a week or two … or consider the crisis a win and forget about it. “An initial response may seem very weak and unsuccessful, but when you look back a year later, you may say, ‘You know what? They kind of did work through that. And they’re still on top and have a good reputation,’” says Vizcarrondo. “And vice versa.”

Find the crisis before the crisis finds you.
Public relations professionals should be thinking about and managing their clients’ reputations at all times. “If somebody’s going to say something about you, they’re going to say it behind your back,” says Vizcarrondo. “So it’s very important to have someone on the PR team actively monitoring Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Facebook, where people could be saying things about your brand. It’s a really good way to be proactive and manage any criticism that could be coming your way.”

Full Sail University’s Public Relations Master’s program teaches the skills necessary for public relations professionals to thrive in the digital age, building a solid foundation in traditional PR methods, but also becoming adept at leveraging the new media and online tools key to success in the modern world . To learn more, click here.

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