PR and media training tips in a crisis

using the word ‘sorry’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean accepting blame
Maybe it’s something to do with the times we’re living in, but after a lull we’re getting increasing numbers of enquiries about crisis media training. Bearing that in mind, here are some pointers culled from last month’s PR Week crisis conference. Consistent advice was to ‘ignore the lawyers, they always tell you to say nothing in a crisis,’ as this can do huge reputational damage. You need to engage, and set the agenda. Choose your words carefully in interviews, but using the word ‘sorry’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean accepting blame – and frankly, if you are to blame for a major problem you’ll probably get sued anyway, whether you apologised or not.
There was some focus on the perils and opportunities created by social media, particularly when they interact with traditional ‘mass media’. Many big incidents now first reach journalists’ eyes via Twitter reports, so it’s harder than ever to ‘control the story’ let alone the timing. You have to monitor, and engage quickly if possible. As Rob Skinner of PayPal put it, ‘social media punish corporate indifference.’ The message was to ‘get social before the crisis hits’ so everything is in place, rather than (like BP after Deepwater Horizon) to allow someone to register a Twitter account using your name and logo, transmitting highly unflattering things about you, with a far greater following than your official account. Or, like the Carnival cruise line after Costa Concordia, forget to stop pre-set automated tweets being sent out. These were plugging special promotions which appeared highly tasteless in the wake of a vessel capsizing. Or indeed, to behave like RIM after the BlackBerry system’s highly publicised outage last year. It took 36 hours for the company to begin to explain to angry users what was going on; it then tweeted in highly technical, non user-friendly language, which grated even more.
Mark Schmid, PR boss of TalkTalk, admitted at the conference that there’s no one right way of doing things – ‘we’re all learning as we go.’ He said the key is to identify the issues that matter and the people that matter – for example footballer Robin van Persie has 1.5 million Twitter followers so in social media terms he’s a far more important than any of his team-mates. Who are the big influencers in your area? Ensure you’re following them and respond quickly and with great care if need be.