October 17, 2018
Why is it that hiring a PR firm during a crisis is often portrayed by media as a controversial decision? If your company is being sued, it is customary and totally appropriate to hire a lawyer to defend your rights. If you get sick, you go see a doctor. If you want to build an addition to your home, you hire a licensed contractor. But if you have a crisis that is going to have public exposure and gain media attention, god forbid you get some advice on how to tell your side of the story.
When I have asked media about this over the years, I typically get an answer like “you aren’t going to tell me the truth. I want the real story.” Most of that opinion I chalk up to the fact that most reporters don’t understand what the job of a communications professional is, and when there’s a crisis, they assume that the company has done something wrong and just wants to hide it. What’s interesting is that it couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s a few reasons why:
1. As communications professionals, we are hired to help a company (or individual) explain what happened and do it in a way that’s easier to understand or helps convey the whole picture.
Of course, part of that is putting your best foot forward but it’s certainly not about lying to cover up the pieces that you don’t want to share. Media will typically find out if you lie, and then coverage gets worse because now you’ve lied on top of whatever you messed up in the first place.
2. The goal of crisis communications is to shorten the duration of a news cycle and protect your brand/reputation, not to extend the cycle and make the crisis worse.
That’s why we do things like provide media training for executives, which is another thing media don’t like and often criticize because it makes it more difficult for them to make an organization or individual look bad because they are more adept at answering tough questions. Good, simple answers make for boring TV and media move on to more interesting content.
3. Communicating with the media during a crisis can be intimidating but hiring a PR firm with experience dealing with media can be reassuring as a crisis unfolds and media descend.
I’ve often heard lawyers talk about how they are actually happy when the opposition they face “lawyer up” because it takes the emotion out of the discussion and allows everyone to focus on the legal aspects of a negotiation. Maybe media should look at it similarly – that PR professionals are actually speaking the same language the media are – and that both have the legitimate objective of telling an accurate story and making complicated concepts easier to understand for a broad audience.
In the end, balanced media coverage that offers multiple viewpoints serves all parties, from media to companies and consumers. Bringing on competent communications counsel, even if it can be portrayed by media as a negative, can help organizations in crisis situations have a better chance at getting their story told well.