August 1, 2022
An Open Letter to CEOs Facing a PR Crisis: 7 Truths You Need to Hear
If your firm is facing a crisis that’s about to make headlines, your first instinct is probably to try to make the story go away. That’s understandable. No one wants bad press or to see her or his firm’s name dragged through the mud.
But you can’t stop reporters from doing their jobs. They are going to tell your story regardless of your feelings about it. And if you try to kill the narrative, your efforts could cause more reputational harm for you and your firm than the bad news itself.
As a senior leader, it is up to you to calmly guide your firm through the crisis with honesty, transparency and humility. There may be no way out, but there is a way through. And in our experience, the way through is eased by mindful appreciation of certain things that aren’t commonly found in your typical crisis playbook.
Here are the seven truths you should remember when the next crisis hits.
1. The Press Coverage Is Going to Be Bad. You Can Only Make It Less Bad.
If a reporter asks you to provide a comment for a story about a crisis at your firm, you can’t make the story go away, turn it from negative to positive, or avoid the likely ding to your reputation. The coverage is going to be bad. But you may be able to exert control over how bad it is by:
- Giving the reporter an interview. As counterintuitive as it may feel, now is not the time to shy away from the spotlight. Instead, engage skillfully with valid arguments and counterpoints that provide context for your side of the story.
- Helping reporters get it right. Credible journalists want to be fair and accurate. Give them context and information that will enable them to separate fact from fiction.
- Communicating directly with your audience. No matter how many people hear the bad news that’s about to break, remember: The world is not your audience. Spend the lion’s share of your energy communicating directly with your employees and clients and other stakeholders who matter most.
2. You’re Going to Feel Differently About This Crisis in Three Months.
So the press coverage was bad. You’re embarrassed and morale at your organization is low. When facing such a scenario, it may feel like the stigma will last forever. But Wells Fargo is still making loans. United Airlines is still flying planes. And you can still pick up a Whole30 Lifestyle Bowl, with double protein at Chipotle in your brand new Volkswagen. These companies worked through significant threats to their reputation and you will too. The way you respond to the crisis will influence how long it takes for you to rebound. You need an authentic mitigation strategy and effective communication plan to regroup and redirect.
3. Your Default Corporate Statement Will Cause Eyes to Roll. This Is the Time to Be Authentic and Vulnerable.
In response to bad press, your lawyers and advisors will want you to release a statement that shields your firm from liability. Chances are it will sound overly formal and stilted, not address the underlying issue, and sound nothing like anything a human being would actually say. If you want to repair the reputational damage a PR crisis can cause, resist the urge to hide behind the pat holding statement.
Moments of crisis require executive leaders to respond with transparency and accountability. Your employees, clients, and other stakeholders want to know you genuinely care about addressing the underlying problems that brought your firm to this situation.
If you need to dispute certain details in the press coverage or the degree to which the organization is responsible, you can do that. (See no. 6, below.) But do so while expressing sincere regret for any missteps that occurred on your watch. Above all, communicate empathy and concern for anyone who was harmed or affected by the events in question.
4. Set Your Ego Aside. You May Be Embarrassed, but This Is Not About You.
Sharing statements that dodge accountability is not the only way to undermine effective communication. Your own ego and the desire to avoid personal embarrassment can also get in your way. A reporter’s questions are rarely ad hominem attacks. Even if they are, taking them personally risks clouding your judgment. To address the issues at hand, your vulnerability and willingness to listen are more effective because they are disarming.
5. If Something Is Broken in Your Firm, Fix It.
Good things can come out of even the worst situations — but only if you’re willing to do the hard work of repairing what’s broken. To that end, don’t waste the opportunity this crisis affords. As an executive, you have the power and responsibility to get to the bottom of what’s wrong.
Some problems are easier to fix than others. But even if you discover systemic issues, don’t give up until you unravel them. Ask your employees, stakeholders, and investors to help you identify and name your organizational shortcomings. And empower these same people to help you solve them.
Once you’ve done everything you can to address and repair the situation, communicate the steps you’ve taken with the press and with your internal and external stakeholders.
6. You’re Allowed to Punch Back if It’s Warranted.
You should do everything in your power to remedy situations for which your firm is responsible. But if a reporter assigns blame to you for things out of your control — or treats you with blatant unfairness — you should absolutely address it.
Do your due diligence first. Make sure you fully understand the situation and that you have your own facts straight. But then feel free to go on the record and dismantle the opposition’s arguments using clear, to-the-point communication. Don’t accept an unmerited hit to your reputation. And enjoy the warm feeling of satisfaction that this will deliver!
7. You Need to Take Care of Yourself.
Leading an organization through a reputational crisis is not easy. The potential for overwhelming stress and exhaustion can’t be overstated. You need to take care of yourself in order to handle the situation in the best way possible.
Think about the fundamentals that you need in order to stay focused and productive on a normal day. Do you typically run a few miles every morning? Write in your journal to keep yourself accountable to your goals? Eat a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and veggies?
It’s tempting to forgo selfcare and other wellness routines during stressful situations. The “all hands on deck” mentality can even make you feel guilty for spending time on yourself. But all the added pressure and stress make it more important than ever to double down on the fundamentals so you can continue to function at peak performance.
Your organization needs you to be at your sharpest to see it through to the other side of the crisis. So give yourself opportunities to take a break from the unrelenting news cycle and focus on the people, places, and pursuits that bring you joy. Doing so will help you carry the heavy burden of leading a firm through a high-stress season.
The good news is you don’t have to navigate this crisis alone. Greentarget has developed effective PR strategies for clients facing a variety of special situations. We’d be happy to help you, too — just reach out.