You may recall Harvey Keitel’s character The Wolf in “Pulp Fiction.” He swooped into the most difficult and grisly of situations and, with his skill and deft touch, made problems simply disappear. In public relations, however, this approach will not work. There are no miracle workers in real-world PR, and those who try to make real problems simply disappear usually make a bad situation worse. The cover-up is often worse than the crime (see Watergate).
This is one of the key lessons I have learned since making the switch to public relations from journalism. Since leaving The New York Times for the world of strategic and financial communications, I have managed PR for businesses and other organizations in most industries and in all types of situations. I have worked on deals, crises, litigation, executive changes, proxy contests, IPOs, and bankruptcies. I have helped businesses, non-profits, and other organizations raise their profiles and lower their profiles, burnish their reputations and rebuild their reputations.
During that time, I have found that there are some basic principles of PR that apply to just about every industry and situation – including during major crises. I focus on these fundamentals, and consider them the basics of effective public relations.
First among them is that no matter what the situation, no matter what your business, successful PR boils down to your story. This starts with clear, simple messaging. What are your key messages? What do your various audiences need to know and understand about your organization or situation? Keep your messages to a minimum. In some situations you’ll want to have just one message that you can deliver and stick with. When messages are diffuse, things go wrong.
Your messages are at the center of everything you do in communications. They need to be clear, simple, and concise — otherwise you cannot tell your story effectively. It helps to choose digestible language. As Strunk and White wrote, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” Don’t try to sound fancy. Your audiences, sophisticated or not, are more likely to get the message and see you the right way if your messages and language are clear. They’re also more likely to trust and respect you. Busy journalists, bombarded constantly with story ideas and possibilities, are more likely to be drawn to your story if it’s presented simply and clearly.
Once you know your story, make sure you’re ready for anything. “Be Prepared” is the Boy Scout motto for a reason, and it’s essential to good PR. You need to be sure you are ready for any question you might be asked from any direction. You might get calls or emails from journalists, investors, employees, regulators, government officials, partners, or customers. Small problems become big problems when executives are caught off guard.
The best way to prepare as you position your organization or manage any PR situation is by developing a Q&A. Brainstorm every question you might be asked, and then rely on your key messages to craft responses. It is the questions you are unprepared for that will cause unforced errors and make a bad situation worse.
Then create a simple plan. Determine who your key audiences are and figure out how best to reach them. These may be the media, investors, employees, regulators, government officials, partners, or customers. Your best vehicle might be a press release, an email, a letter, a post on your website or on social media, or a Town Hall meeting. Or you may want to use several vehicles. Rely on your key messages to create your PR materials.
Decide on procedures and protocols for all of your PR work, especially when facing a problem or crisis. Name your crisis team in advance, and decide each person’s responsibilities. If possible, do crisis communications planning and training before a crisis hits.
In all your work, remember this acronym: KISS. To some this means, “Keep It Short and Simple.” To others: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Either way, you will be more effective if you don’t overcomplicate things. Multi-pronged, seven-tier programs confuse everyone and increase the chance of error. A military commander who proceeds with a complicated plan risks getting his troops killed. Don’t be that commander. Remember: Message, Q&A, PR materials, and plan. KISS. PR work can be very important, but it’s not rocket science. When it comes to PR, less is more.
Apply the Fundamentals When Managing a Problem or Crisis
These principles are especially important when things go wrong. Often problems and crises are created by a mistake. We all make them, they’re unavoidable. I tell my kids that all the time. The key to responding effectively to a mistake is to acknowledge it and to learn from it. When managing a crisis or problem, you want to acknowledge any mistake, take it on the chin, and mitigate the damage so you can move on. Your job is to avoid any more damage to your business and reputation than is justified or necessary. Executives who have proven that they can manage a crisis effectively are highly valued.
So when your organization faces a crisis or problem, apply the basics of good PR. Avoid unforced errors by keeping it simple:
Until you are able to fully develop your messaging and Q&A, prepare a simple holding statement for your various audiences.
Develop your messaging and prepare your Q&A.
Monitor the media, both traditional and social, so you know how the problem is being perceived. Make sure that key media are reflecting your messaging.
Keep working the problem as a group. Make sure your crisis team is in regular contact, in person or by phone. Start each call or meeting by reviewing the facts and coverage, and then adjust and refine your messaging and strategy as needed.
In some situations, you will face media scrutiny. I may be biased because of my background, but journalists are not the enemy. They play an important role, and organizations that recognize and respect that role tend to have fewer problems and deal with issues more effectively.
That said, PR pros and journalists have different agendas. Journalists want to get the facts and convey them to their audience. PR pros want to effectively deliver their organization’s messages. Don’t improvise, make sure your organization has carefully considered what it wants to say.