Keep Calm and make the right PR choices under pressure

Posted under PR

From housebuilders taking decisions that enrage local residents to the Prime Minister’s political aide – and even the Queen – it seems no-one is immune to a negative headline.

Even in today’s fast-moving world of social media and ‘trial by Twitter’, the power of the press still has a relevant part to play in society when it comes to reporting the news; whether that be through a cleverly worded newspaper headline or TV news channel broadcast.

To reference the numerous stories where good crisis management could have played a big part in the outcome or coverage of a particular story is an impossible task.

There is no question that taking the lead when it comes to managing a crisis is critical – but crucially, the timing of any response under pressure could impact the outcome.

Avoid a knee-jerk reaction

Knowing when to make a statement or take the decision to face your critics is as important as how you do it. Having a plan in place to deal with press or media inquiries probably won’t get you off the hook if there is clear evidence that you are in the wrong, but it will give you a consistent and thought-through approach to your media engagement – it will also prevent any risk of a knee-jerk reaction.

Take, for instance, a scenario of the local developer whose contractors restrict footpath access to the nearby school, used primarily by parents with buggies during the school run.

Easily a local story where the big bad developer has impacted negatively on the local way of life, generating headlines of ‘children’s lives in danger’ and a photograph of a group of angry looking mums; we’ve all seen it.

But early intervention and alerting residents and news channels that this measure will only take place during non-school times immediately squashes heightened emotions and is better communicated right at the outset. Yes, there will still be some annoyance, but the drama of the story has been reduced.

Taking the example to another extreme, recently the Prime Minister’s own political advisor Dominic Cummings was on the receiving end of some extremely intense press attention following what many saw as a flouting of the lockdown rules.

The press pack descended on his home, demanding answers to a super sensitive situation which angered some members the public. Rather than answer questions under extreme pressure on the doorstep, he chose a carefully worded confessional during press conference in the rose garden of Number 10.

While the thinking was perhaps to diffuse the situation in a staged and managed setting, was he right or wrong to take this course of action; giving himself a time to reply under his own terms rather than blurting out adhoc statements when confronted under pressure?

Again, it could be a question of timing – but nonetheless, the lack of public confidence in the Government that followed was perhaps inevitable.

Back in 1997, the Queen herself came under public and media pressure to address the nation following the death of Princess Diana. Six days following the tragic events in Paris, the Queen travelled from Balmoral to Buckingham Palace to face her people and gave a very rare public address.

Whether Her Majesty’s address to the nation – which many saw has having taken far too long – was personal or pressured, it did break Royal protocol and some may say that she put her duties as a grandmother before her Sovereign status. Nevertheless, perhaps the speech could have been better timed?

Steps to consider if your find your business in hot water

Whatever crisis you may find yourself in – either on a slow news day for the local paper or a national media frenzy – managing the situation as transparently as possible is paramount.

Bear the following points in mind and discuss them with your management teams before you release any statements.

  • If you / your business is anticipating some negative press; ensure that you have a watertight and honest statement prepared in advance of being contacted.
  • If possible, head off the story by making yourself available to those who are complaining – it may be a disgruntled customer who cannot get passed the receptionist of your company and the grievance becomes escalated as a result.
  • Don’t take on the press alone – if you have a public relations company, let them deal with it. They will know the right things to say to the journalist asking questions and have the experience and skills to manage the situation.
  • Where possible – never give a ‘no comment’; it can be seen as a cop out or even an admission of guilt.
  • If the media have a deadline for a statement – meet it! A delay will mean you won’t get your say and the story will be imbalanced.
  • You may only get once chance to respond – use it wisely. It used to be said that today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper. Now you can expect a meme to hang around like a bad smell for a lot longer!

Many businesses choose to work with specialist PR experts who have years of experience in taking questions and discussing the situation with local authorities, journalists and the public and obviously, PR can also help businesses promote the good things they do.

If you feel your business could benefit from carefully crafted PR management, get in touch with the Media Matters team.

Cetti Long

Joining Media Matters in 1997, as a qualified journalist, Cetti’s skills as a writer make her a highly versatile member of the team.

During her career in PR and journalism, Cetti has met and interviewed many faces from both stage and screen – with rugby legend Kyran Bracken and Aussie celeb Peter Andre topping the list.

Fantastic at telling a story, and with a few to tell of her own, a highlight of Cetti’s career was a visit to Croatia in the mid-90s, just after the war; finding it very humbling turning the words of people she met into stories relevant to the newspaper she was working on at the time.

When she’s not singing (at full volume) in her car, Cetti is busy making friends and family laugh with her brilliant impressions – ‘in Italiano’ or English – and loves going to the theatre and eating out.