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 corporate reputation?
In the social age, seemingly innocuous events could be blown way out of proportion. At the same time, getting your news out there has become increasingly challenging in an ever-streaming, over-cluttered digital world.
While the social age has heralded a more open culture of sharing and trust, publicists must still be circumspect in the way they communicate and engage. 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 all our company secrets close to our chest? Or should we reveal all and sundry? How do we know when to blab and when to button down?
What is Your Context?
The answer lies in acknowledging and appreciating your unique communication context.
Depending on your situation, there are times when you need to charge forward in an aggressive manner, employing every available PR tool that you’ve got. This will be during occasions where it is difficult to garner any media or public interest in your product or service due to the lack of news angles.
On other occasions, however, you may fare better by shrinking backwards and remaining silent. Corporate communications folks working in the public service will be well aware of this, given the sensitivity of the issues that are being tackled.
Using the metaphor of war, we need to understand if the situation calls for an offensive or a defensive mode of PR.
Let us go through each in turn.
Offensive Public Relations Strategies
Like a striker in a football field or a forward in a basketball court, your goal here is to score. In the offensive mode, PR folks become proactive publicists, spinning stories and pitching them to the media – be they traditional, 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. Your customers are mostly happy, shareholders are mostly celebratory, and your CEO is in the mood to throw a big party.
However, you do face intense competition given the numerous companies that are fighting for attention from the media.
#1 Diverge to spread influence
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.
Or consider crafting human stories that are unique and interesting. Think too about any statistics or research findings that you can garner – these can help to strengthen your story angle.
#2 Multiply spokespersons
Allow as many of your stakeholders to be your spokespersons. They could be senior managers, specialist employees, customers, board members, partners, or anybody else deemed to be credible and “close to the action”.
Encourage them to share the “good news” as much as possible, and give them the flexibility to use their own words (while guided by talking points).
#3 Magnify social sharing
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.
#4 Foster friendships
In the words of Stephen Covey, now is the time for you to place deposits in the emotional bank accounts of your friends from the media.
Offer helpful insights and comments on industry trends and developments. Connect them with potential interviewees, and point them out to useful sources of information. Be willing to extend help above and beyond your organisation’s own interests.
Defensive Public Relations Strategies
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 company or staff related information gets inadvertently leaked to the media.
#1 Converge and tighten control
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.
All forms of communication must be processed through your corporate communications or public relations team. Do not allow employees, suppliers, or other partners to state their own versions of what occurred.
Instead, channel all statements centrally through the PR office with the approval of the CEO. Remember that your corporate reputation is at stake here.
#2 Embrace the 4 Cs – Clarity, Coherence, Competence and Compassion
During a time where chaotic conditions may reign, your PR team needs to keep calm and stick to the 4 Cs, namely:
- Clarity: Ensure that you have the facts and figures right in front of you. Aim for accuracy in your communications, and quell speculative or uncertain information.
- Coherence: Ensure that your story has integrity and consistency. Whatever you say at the start, middle and end of the episode must gel. If there are new developments, explain how these have influenced the outcomes of the situation.
- Competence: Showcase how your organisation deals with the incident professionally and competently. Demonstrate how you are doing whatever you can to handle the crisis and minimise it occurring in the future.
- Compassion: Last, but certainly not least, you need to care for those affected by the incident. Communicate how your organisation has made restitutions to the victims. Share photos and videos of your executives in action.
#3 Single source of information
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.
Beyond your spokespersons, ensure that your media platforms – website, news releases, and social media channels – are turned into official sources of information. Postpone all other announcements or content and focus on the crisis until it has simmered down.
#4 Frequent and regular updates
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.
Note however that this depends on the gravity of the incident. You do not want to raise unnecessary excitement if the negative incident can be easily managed internally.
#5 Limit collateral damage
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 your organisation can abdicate itself 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.
What has your experience with offensive and defensive PR been like? Does your organisation apply such strategies?