As former journalists we sense immediately when a minor incident has the potential to blow up and become a major PR disaster. Thankfully, our innate news sense also gives us the edge when it comes to crisis communications – in other words, keeping our clients out of the news at those tricky moments.
The journalist’s perspective
A few years ago I was working on the newsdesk of a local paper. I took a call from a woman whose daughter had just got married. During the service a collectionplate had been passed round the congregation bearing a sign that said “Notes Only”. She was naturally horrified and embarrassed for her guests. As a reporter, I smelt a story.
My next step was to call the vicar. What was he thinking? Did he know how much he’d upset the family? Apparently, he did.
He asked me if I knew how much it cost to keep a beautiful old church building in good repair? Surely, if someone wants to use that lovely church to celebrate a marriage, should they not be encouraged to contribute to its upkeep? Why should his volunteers spend their Sundays counting coppers when they had better things to do with their time?
It was a good comeback, and one that earned him a spot on most of the top Sunday news slots on TV and radio the following weekend. As for the story, it went national and the debate raged for weeks.
The PR’s perspective
So when a journalist called me as a PR to let me know he’d had a complaint against one of my clients and would be running a story, I knew just where it could be heading.
We had three options:
No comment – this would leave people guessing but also gave the accuser carte blanche to say what they liked unchallenged.
Issue a statement that set out the facts from the client’s perspective. This would hopefully minimise the negative impact and tell both sides of the story.
Offer an interview giving an alternative argument in an attempt t turn public opinion our way. This was the vicar’s tactic and it worked for him, but it’s a risky option.
We advised our client to take option 2, although they were tempted to try option 1. We were nervous and recommended issuing a statement. We prepared something that was matter of fact enough to counter the claims without creating too much debate. In the end, our client took our advice and the statement was printed alongside the customer’s accusations, as we knew it would be.
The story appeared in the local paper but there was no follow up from other publications and the comments under the story online and on Facebook were more critical of the customer than our client. A PR disaster had been averted and we breathed a sigh of relief.
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