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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gary Witt

10 Questions to Ask in Creating a PR Crisis Strategy

When a sudden business crisis strikes, you need a plan already in place to deal with it. Is this the face of someone who is ready to deal with a major crisis? Be Prepared!

Marketing Psychology

Dr. Gary Witt

An unforeseen problem can suddenly fall on any business like a brick wall. Would you know immediately what to do if that happened to you?

When a crisis strikes, you need a plan to help you preserve your relationships with customers, vendors, employees and government agencies. The questions and ideas here will help you formulate that crisis management plan. They are not the only advice you’ll need, but they do give you a sound place to start. These questions are designed to illuminate the details of the problem, and suggest the type of solutions which may be most cost‑effective in the long‑run.

While these questions are focused on what PR firms call "issues management" or "crisis management," you'll also find this checklist very helpful, but not inclusive, in developing pro‑active PR plans. The questions are taken from my original article encompassing 23 important questions. You’ll find the other questions in an appendix at the end of this short blog. They are worth considering.

Part 1: Preparation - Questions to answer before deciding what to do:

1) WHAT IS THE PROBLEM? WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF YOUR CONCERN? The "problem" is usually a senior executive's opinion that something is wrong now or soon will be, or that something could be better. That opinion isn’t the problem. To plan effectively, you must first be specific about the perceived problem. "People don't like us" is not a specific problem statement. "Business is off 25% because of the construction in front of our store” is a specific problem statement. Notice that the first statement doesn’t suggest any avenues for finding a resolution to the problem, while the latter statement does. Be as specific as possible.

The problem or problems you identify may extend much farther than your customers. For example, an HMO might identify these problems: (a) Customers angry about the way they are treated have been complaining to lawmakers and the press. (b) Public opinion about our company is nose-diving because of these complaints. (c) Lawmakers may pass bills that increase burdensome regulations. Notice that your definition of the “problems” are centered on your company, not on your customers.

As you write down the problems, ask yourself if there are cause-and-effect links among the problems. With the HMO example, the poor public opinion and regulatory actions are both primarily caused by the negative stories of customers. By doing this cause-and-effect analysis, you can home in on the problem whose resolution may have the biggest overall impact.

Sometimes, when you get done with this step, you realize one of two things: (a) it isn't really a problem at all, or (b) we can't do anything about it.

2) WHO IS AFFECTED AND HOW? This is a key question, so don’t gloss over your answers. Focus on the exact issues that are creating the problems in the minds of each important group of stakeholders. For example, if the HMO in the above example did this exercise, they might identify these problems as the source of customer dissatisfaction: (a) delays in paying claims, (b) rejection of needed treatments, (c) impersonal attitude of customer service employees, (d) unwarranted cancellation of policies, etc.

List all your stakeholders, their specific complaints, how they are affected, and what their most likely response will be. You may not have the resources to resolve every group's issues, so you must know which groups are the most important for the continued success of the business.

3) WHAT EXTERNAL FACTORS WILL INFLUENCE YOUR ACTIONS? You must always be aware of dangers which may affect your plans, and opportunities you can use to your advantage. For example, if outside organizations, such as government agencies or TV news reporters, are involved, you should consider their probable public relations impact as you make your plans. Your PR decisions can seldom be made in a vacuum; there are nearly always external factors influencing them.

4) WHAT TIME FACTORS WILL INFLUENCE YOUR ACTIONS? Any plan requires time to create, assemble, and carry out. The less time you have, the simpler your plan must be. People nearly always underestimate the time a PR campaign will take to develop, and the resources necessary to do the job right. Don’t let yourself be caught in the time trap.

Part 2: Taking Action

The questions above help business owners take stock of the situation, which usually involves an unexpected problem. After gaining an objective, these next set of questions looks at how to create your Crisis Action Plan.

5) WHAT ARE OUR GOALS? You need to know where you want to go before you can get there. Be specific in the exact new state of affairs you want. "I want this to go away," is not a specific statement. Begin by looking at all your "publics," the groups of stakeholders and concerned groups your business depends on. What do they think about your business now? What do you want them to think in a few days or weeks? Your goal is to figure out what strategy will create the change. Do you want your customers to think you did everything you could to make their life easier during the crisis, or that you treated them like sheep?

6) WHAT OUTCOMES COULD HELP US REACH OUR GOALS? This is a brainstorming question. Look at each group you need to influence in order to reach your goals. What would make them happy "in the best of all possible worlds"? You are brainstorming, so don't worry about how feasible the idea is. If they want the construction to be completed now, write it down, even if you know it won't be done for another two months.

The key is to try to look at the situation through THEIR eyes and see where the bar is set. Then, if you can't reach it, at least you'll know how close you can get. Often people are willing to think well of a company that does its best at making them happy ‑‑ if its actions demonstrate that it knows what they want, not what the company thinks is best for them. Then write down several other actions which may not be as pleasing to that "public" as your first answer, but are moving in the same direction ("We could provide valet parking." "We could open up spots where employees park.") Do this for each group you care about influencing.

7) WHAT CHANGES MUST WE MAKE TO ACHIEVE THE OUTCOMES WE WANT? Most plans involve changes within a company. They may be in policy, plans, personnel, products, or procedures. It is often this tangible proof of change that does the most to sell the company's message. Make a list of those changes which must occur in order to achieve the goals your company has selected. That's the "to do" list which will allow you to achieve your goals with each of your "publics."

8) WHAT MESSAGE MUST BE COMMUNICATED TO EACH "PUBLIC" TO ACHIEVE THESE OUTCOMES? The most critical job of a person involved in public relations is to be a good communicator. A large part of that job is to (a) identify the precise messages which each public needs to hear, and (b) create messages which are both clear and persuasive. As you do this, try to look at your company through the eyes of the person you're trying to inform. What are their key concerns? What is their level of knowledge and experience with this issue? What arguments will be persuasive to them? Be aware of their feelings, which may be near the trigger point, as you create your copy so you do not inadvertently offend and make the situation worse. As famed adman David Ogilvy said, "Write advertising as though it would be read by your own mother or wife."

9) WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR DOING EACH TASK, AND FOR OVERALL COORDINATION OF THE PROJECT? It's amazing how often this is overlooked. Then people stand around pointing fingers and shouting, "I thought you were going to do that!"

The person is charge of implementing the Action Plan should write down everyone’s assigned duties, and when each will be accomplished -- then “ride herd” on them until each job is done. Never mistake the words “I will” for “I did.”

10) HOW CAN WE AVOID SIMILAR PROBLEMS IN THE FUTURE? Sometimes problems are of a company’s own making, the unavoidable consequence of some policy or decision made months or years before. Your team should look over the company’s current operating policies (both formal and informal) to see if some obvious “accidents waiting to happen” can be fixed before they turn into another crisis. This can be a great long-term investment of your staff’s time.

George Santayana's famous quotation, "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it," is good advice for any company finding itself in need of good public relations. Learn from all the companies that didn't plan or think before opening their corporate mouths, that tried to save a buck by doing it themselves, that failed to take the time to gather all the facts needed to devise a smart plan, that tried to hide behind a lie or "no comment."

Major companies have detailed binders for all sorts of possible crisis events. Their plans of what to do are ready. You might follow their lead and prepare a few yourself. In the middle of a crisis is a terrible time to try to figure out what you are going to do!

Below you will find many additional questions to help guide your thoughts and plans....


A) WHY IS IT A PROBLEM FOR YOUR COMPANY? IS IT A SERIOUS PROBLEM? This is a “triage” question. Before spending time solving problem, make sure it is something that's worth the effort which could be spent on other problems. You've got no shortage of problems, just of money, time and people to solve them. Be sure this is the best long‑term investment of your resources. If it isn't, learn to live with the problem. If it's likely to be worth the resources you'll use up, go on to the next questions.

B) WHERE IS IT A PROBLEM? Isolate the area of impact, now and in the future. This may be geographical, departmental, situational, internal, etc. Is it contained, or is it likely to spread to other areas? If it spreads, what will be the effect? If it is likely to spread, when will it do so?

C) WHEN IS IT A PROBLEM? Does it only happen once a year during the Christmas holidays, just during the summer, every weekend, or every day? Has it just begun to happen, or has it been going on for some time? Understanding the time frame of your problem is critical in determining your options, and what to do.

D) IS IT LIKELY TO STOP? A problem that has no end in sight can demand more serious concern than one which will disappear next week. Some problems have a clear end (the parking lot gets paved and the crew goes away). Many others don’t. In that case, ask yourself, “What is the vector of this problem?” Is the vector upward -- is the problem getting worse? Or is it down -- is the problem diminishing? There’s an old stock market adage, “the trend is your friend,” meaning that it is often smart to see which way a stock’s trend line is moving and bet it will continue moving in the same direction. That’s also good advice for planning a PR strategy.

E) WHO IS AFFECTED? Most problems ultimately revolve around people who believe they aren’t being treated right. The problem probably affects more than one group of people. These groups are "stakeholders" in the situation. It is important to identify every group which may be impacted to a significant degree. For example, a long‑lasting construction project in front of a store may affect potential customers, employees, specific executives, stockholders, neighboring stores, neighboring residential areas, and so on. List all your stakeholders, then put a checkmark by those which are the most important to your business.

F) WHO IS CONCERNED? Problems may spill over to other groups who are not stakeholders. These groups may become concerned, and force their way into the situation you are trying to resolve. The most common example is a government agency. Other examples may include city, state or national groups representing a class of people you have affected. For example, when neighborhoods are affected by pollutants, environmental groups like the Sierra Club often take a role in helping bring the issue to court. Many local organizations play similar "friend of" roles, such as NAILEM in matters of neighborhood crime. And if your problem is "news," media outlets may become involved, especially if the problem is likely to have a negative impact on their readers or viewers.

It is important to recognize the full potential scope of the problem by asking yourself what government, civic, social, religious, educational, and media organizations may become concerned. Write down each organization, the person who would likely be assigned to the issue, why they may become concerned, what they may do, and how they may be able to help you resolve the problem. Each of your stakeholder groups and concerned organizations is a separate "public" which you may need to target with messages specifically designed to resolve their concerns.

G) WHAT INTERNAL FACTORS WILL INFLUENCE YOUR ACTIONS? You aren't a free agent in deciding what is best to do. You are constrained in any decision by your company's policies, procedures, legal obligations, economic factors, capabilities, resource factors, and the personal opinions of executives and board members. You need to clearly define what avenues are open to you, and the process you must go through to get final approval for them. You should know what is "politically" possible in your company.

H) WHAT HAVE WE DONE IN SIMILAR SITUATIONS IN THE PAST? HOW DID IT WORK OUT? Companies, like courts, are often constrained by precedent. You must know if this problem, or a similar one, has arisen in the past, and how it was handled. There's a good chance that if a strategy worked in the past, with some updating it could work again. On the other hand, if it didn’t work, you've been forewarned about using it again. You can be sure that if you overlook a previously successful strategy, someone will happily point it out to you!

I) WHAT HAVE OTHER COMPANIES DONE IN SIMILAR SITUATIONS? HOW DID IT WORK OUT? WHAT MISTAKES DID THEY MAKE? Nearly all problems have been faced by some other company. Learn from their successes and mistakes. When Johnson & Johnson discovered a few bottles of Tylenol had been poisoned by a lunatic in Chicago, the company avoided the mistake others had made of not reacting as swiftly or carefully as their customers expected. Instead, the company pulled every bottle of Tylenol off the shelves, added new protective packaging materials, tested the pulled pills for problems, and communicated honestly with consumers about everything it was doing, even using dozens of national teleconferences to answer reporters' questions and provide updates. The result ‑‑ Tylenol’s sales just had a small "hiccup," and its reputation for customer care skyrocketed.

J) WHAT IS THE BEST ACTION WITH A REASONABLE CHANCE OF SUCCESS TO TAKE FOR EACH "PUBLIC" WE WANT TO INFLUENCE? Taking any action to remedy a problem, or improve a situation, is a gamble. You generally want to select the action that will give you the best chance of accomplishing at least the core of your objective, rather than taking a wild gamble that may leave you worse off than you are. How often have we seen the complete denial of problem by a government official or company later come back to haunt them, making their reputation and public relations problem worse, not better?

K) WHAT FACTUAL AND SUPPORTIVE INFORMATION DO WE NEED TO CREATE A CREDIBLE RESPONSE TO THIS MESSAGE? People aren't persuaded because you tell them it is so. Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook," but the facts didn’t support him. Bill Clinton said, "I didn't have relations," but the facts didn't support him. Generally, you will need to provide each audience with two or three solid, irrefutable facts to support your contention if you hope to create any long‑term influence on their opinions about your company. For example, consider all that Johnson & Johnson did to support its claim that Tylenol would be safe to buy. Often the extra time and money spent supporting your message turns out to be an excellent long‑term investment. That old saying is still true, "The proof's in the pudding."

L) WHAT MEDIA ARE BEST TO COMMUNICATE OUR MESSAGE TO EACH "PUBLIC" WE HAVE TARGETED? You can reach different publics most effectively, persuasively, and economically using different media. A hand‑delivered flyer or videotape may be better to communicate with a neighborhood than a newspaper article or ad. A personal phone call may be a better way to reach good customers than a letter.

Your decision should not just consider the medium which is most cost effective or easiest to use, but the medium which will carry the most impact with the group. Carefully consider your options; don't jump to conclusions or listen exclusively to ad salesmen.

M) HOW WILL WE EVALUATE THE OUTCOME IN TIME TO MAKE CHANGES IF NECESSARY? As noted before, any action is a gamble. By devising an early feedback system, you can give yourself an edge. If your strategy isn’t working as well as you had hoped, this feedback will allow you to make modifications before it is too late. This is the same tactic companies use when they "test market" a product before its general distribution.

You should write down the names of some people in each targeted public on whom you want to "try out" the message for that group. Letting them help you "fine tune" the message gives you a much greater chance of success. See if you can also line up some opinion leaders in each group who will let you know early in the campaign what they are hearing from those who received your message.

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