PR is rarely life-or-death – but when it is you’ll be glad you were prepared
Volkswagen’s (mis)management of its product recalls internationally, and its clumsy response to the fallout from the inquest into the death of a Melbourne driver – this is the stuff that keeps public relations practitioners awake at night.
When deadlines are looming and stress levels are high, as a reality check, I usually ask – is this a life or death situation? In the world of public relations, you rarely face genuine emergencies.
Investor relations getting into a flap about market disclosure obligations, or the CEO being crucified about executive remuneration – these are challenging PR moments. But no one will die if you don’t craft the talking points just so, or the ASX release doesn’t get lodged before the market closes.
In Volkswagen’s case, the safety of its customers has been at stake. These are the exact circumstances where your crisis management plan should be executed to the last excruciating detail, even if you have to stay awake all night… assuming you have a plan. Judging from the slowness and lack of coordination of Volkswagen’s response internationally, this basic building block of any PR/marketing strategy may have been missing.
While every situation is different, here are some tips on issues management that could help a company handle the worst case scenario. And, yes, it starts with having a plan in place.
Prepare and constantly update your crisis management plan with key contacts in head office as well as satellite offices, responsibilities and turnaround times.
Test your plan by doing hypothetical exercises with your senior management team and PR advisers. For financial services companies, scenarios can include losing client data; for construction or mining companies, this could be the death of an employee onsite.
Keep the regulator on your side, including by keeping them informed – sounds simple, but a common mistake is being overly optimistic and hoping the issue will go away. But then it doesn’t and the regulator or media comes knocking on your door. Voluntarily reporting a potential breach early sets a good foundation for what could be a lengthy relationship. A regulator’s investigation into your company’s affairs might take months, even years to complete and, as with any relationship, trust is essential.
Don’t be afraid to say sorry – the lawyers might not like seeing the company admitting blame too early in the piece, but when the horse has bolted, media reports are negative, sales are woeful and the share price is getting hammered, how much more have you got to lose? A heartfelt public apology can help win back public trust, and processing refunds quickly might have less of an impact on the bottom line than a drawn out court case. Use probability calculations and decision trees if management needs convincing.
Map out a plan to improve business processes – address what went wrong in the quality assurance process or occupational health and safety procedures. This could even be the source of good news stories, if improvements are successful and can be measured.
Repairing the damage is a lengthy and expensive process but time and again, brands have proven they can bounce back. Nike overcame the issue of child labour; Nestle, the malnutrition and death of babies in third world countries; BP, the Gulf oil spill… Volkswagen is but a recent addition to the list of real life-or-death crisis management issues in the corporate world. The lesson for other companies is be prepared to handle the crisis when it does arise.