June 22, 2020
More than 110,000 people in the U.S. have died as a result of COVID-19. In addition to tragically taking human lives, the coronavirus pandemic exposed shortcomings of the national health system, with early shortages of critical equipment, such as ventilators, personal protective gear and masks.
The pandemic also seemed to create a cottage industry for businesses to issue “helpful” information. Every type of business, from retail stores and restaurants, to accounting and law firms, nonprofits and financial advisors let us know that – “hey, we’re on pause, we’ll be back even stronger … and remember to wash your hands and use hand sanitizer.”
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t need this same message from every organization that I receive emails from.
It seemed as though everyone thought they had to say something, but they didn’t plan for what they would say. Rather than simply copying the COVID-19 boilerplate from everyone else and sharing the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, companies should have had a crisis public relations plan in place that identified key messaging.
I’m not saying that businesses should have been completely prepared for the pandemic – no one could have been. However, every business would have benefited from having a plan in place, to avoid sharing the same generic messaging that everyone else did. The messaging became white noise.
The pandemic may be a unique case, but it underscores the fact that every business or nonprofit organization should be prepared to handle a public relations crisis. A crisis PR plan is an important first step.
How a crisis is handled, though, isn’t always the same. Effective communication early on can help diffuse a situation and keep it from snowballing into something much worse.
I once guided a nonprofit through crisis communications involving an inappropriate sexual relationship between a volunteer and a child the volunteer was mentoring. When the victim’s family filed a lawsuit, the media wanted comment from the nonprofit’s leadership about the relationship. In this situation, I suggested the best way to handle it was to issue a written statement and to not to participate in an on-camera interview. This recommendation worked, as the nonprofit’s message was conveyed word for word on screen.
During a public relations industry conference I attended, a colleague told a story about how they handled a PR crisis for a large, global company. After hearing about the situation from the company’s CEO, the PR pro replied, “I will tell you what you need to do to get out of this, but before I do, you need to pay me $25,000.” The CEO wrote the check and gave it to the PR counselor. The PR pro then told him, “The solution is for you to do nothing. This issue will blow over.” This advice turned out to be right, and the $25,000 payment was far less than the company would have spent on other methods to deal with the issue.
Every crisis situation is different, but the basis for the response should always be honesty.
If you want help putting together a crisis PR plan, or if you have an issue that needs to be managed, contact Cook Communications today. We can help you prepare for what comes next.