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PUBLIC RELATIONS: Prepare now for crisis

When the Kilian Community College Board of Trustees voted in 2015 to close the Sioux Falls school, the decision had a broad and immediate impact. As the college’s president at the time, I was tasked with creating and executing the crisis communications plan.

The next day, I met with faculty, staff and students to explain the decision and what it meant for them. There were key donors and business leaders to notify, and I did several media interviews to assure our many stakeholders of an orderly and responsible closure.

Companies of all sizes and all industries should be prepared for when — not if — a public relations issue arises. And they should start by preparing their best key message for that worst possible moment. Once a business has defined what differentiates it from the others and what is important to it, executives should communicate that clearly to all of their employees. Everyone should be speaking the same language. That message will play a vital role.

Before a crisis does arise, know who the spokesperson is. Who will handle media questions? More important, is there an easily accessible method for media to contact the business? Perhaps an email address specifically for media requests on the website? As we say at Media Minefield, “no comment” is still a comment, and it usually makes you look guilty.   

When faced with a PR crisis, the most important part will be how the business responds. Do not be afraid to consult a crisis communication expert. The public, customers, competition and business partners all will be watching. How well, and even how quickly, a company responds will determine how much damage a crisis will have for its brand and its future.

In a PR crisis, we tell our clients the best course of action is to take responsibility immediately. But that typically isn’t good enough. It’s also important to outline what will be done differently in the future. How will the company prevent this from happening again? Why should customers, clients or business partners give it another chance? Accountability and action steps are key in overcoming a crisis.

The final, most important part is follow through. Once action steps are outlined, the company must adhere to them. Its reputation depends on it.

A PR crisis does not have to be devastating, and most companies are able to bounce right back. But a series of crises will undermine a business’ credibility, and as the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It will always be important to learn from mistakes.   

In today’s world with social media, camera phones, realtime reviews and a 24-7 news cycle,  whether a company is in the financial industry, education, a nonprofit or a Fortune 500, now is the time to make sure it is ready for a crisis.

Mark Millage

Regional Director

Media Minefield

Sioux Falls, South Dakota