Public Relations

The article below originally appeared on the home page of my PR Class website before being moved here to serve as an entry portal to the crisis communication section of this site and make room for other articles on the home page.

-- Michael Turney, Ph.D., ABC     

Crisis communication is the Olympics of public relations

There's no doubt that maintaining effective public relations during a crisis situation when your organization is facing physical or financial collapse, is responsible for causing significant harm, or is under the intense spotlight of negative media coverage is challenging. It may be the most difficult task you'll ever face as a public relations practitioner.

Similarly, there's no doubt that participating in The Olympics -- regardless of the sport, and whether it's a team or an individual event -- is the ultimate challenge for athletes. It literally pits the best athletes in the world against one another and does it in full view of the entire world.

When you think about it, there are a lot of similarities between crisis communication and the Olympics.

Regardless of the sport, the rules for playing a game are essentially the same whether it's played informally by a group of friends in a park, played professionally by high-paid athletes, or played internationally by the designated representatives of the world's nations competing in The Olympics.

The rules of the games don't change when they're played in The Olympics, although they may be more scrupulously enforced. The difference between The Olympics and other athletic competitions isn't the rules, it's ...

The aftermath is also different. After most athletic competitions both the winners and losers pack up, head for home, and immediately begin preparing for the next competition that may be as soon as the next day or the next week. But, when the Olympic Games are over, the paths of the medal-winners and the also-rans diverge dramatically.

Those who have been successful and won Olympic medals become media celebrities, at least in their own country if not world-wide. Many capitalize on their new-found fame and the financial opportunities it brings. Public tours, commercial endorsements, and job offers pour in, at least in the short-run, and some former Olympians maintain their celebrity for the rest of their lives.

The fortunates among the also-rans who finished out of the medals may be able to resume their training regimens and continue as athletic competitors. Some may even stage comebacks in future Olympics, but they have to wait at least four years and work really hard to do it. Many more also-rans simply disappear from sight and are never heard of again.

Public relations isn't a sport, but the same general conditions are true. The basic rules and procedures for performing public relations are no different whether your organization is doing business as usual in a totally routine and calm environment or it's facing a major crisis.

What does change is the pace and intensity of the process.

Compared to everyday public relations, when you're doing public relations in a crisis ...

Afterwards, organizations and public relations practitioners that have successfully handled a crisis can go on to long and prosperous futures while those that failed can experience staggering losses. Individuals can end up out of jobs, and organizations can lose millions of dollars or even go out of business.

Consider two well-known examples. By its prompt and consumer-safety-comes-first response to the Tylenol tampering and poisoning crisis, Johnson and Johnson become one of the most respected and highly-regarded corporations in the world and its Tylenol brand became one of the most trusted brands in the health care field.

In contrast, when Exxon bungled its response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska only a few years later, it became one of the most scorned and despised companies in the world. It lost millions of dollars because consumers refused to buy its products. In fact, thousands of once-loyal customers cut up their Exxon credit cards and boycotted the company.

There's one more similarity between crisis communication and The Olympics. It's an almost embarrassing, "dirty little secret" that is widely known but rarely talked about among practitioners who have successfully worked their way through a crisis.

Like competing in The Olympics, doing crisis communication is a tremendous rush. -- Some would say an adrenaline high. -- It leaves you feeling exhilarated and on top of the world knowing that you and your organization have survived, perhaps even thrived, when the odds were against you and the eyes of the world were on you. It's possible that your crisis was not literally a life-or-death situation -- or, maybe, it actually was -- but, whatever it was, you came through it successfully, minimized the public relations damage to your organization, and positioned the organization and yourself for the future. That's an accomplishment!

The questions to ask yourself before facing a crisis are: Am I ready to play in "the Olympics" of public relations?

And, if you do face a crisis, do it like an Olympian. -- Take a deep breath, try to relax, and push yourself to the max.

What type of crisis will you face?

No one knows. No one can predict what tomorrow will bring let alone what may or may not occur during a lifetime career in public relations. What I can tell you, and what I've written elsewhere, is that countless books, articles, and news stories offer urgent warnings about the increasing likelihood of facing a major crisis regardless of what kind of business, industry, or non-profit organization employs you.

Even if you end up being one of the lucky ones who never faces a crisis, the possibility of confronting one deserves consideration and advance planning. You need to pay attention to what's happening around you and keep up to date on current trends in crisis occurrence and crisis response techniques. But, unless you work for a high profile organization in a high-risk environment, crisis planning needn't be a daily concern.

One of the best ways to keep up with crisis trends is the Annual ICM Crisis Report published by the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM) of Louisville, Kentucky. It's been doing crisis communication planning, training, and consulting for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses around the world since 1989. Its Annual Crisis Reports summarize the crises that hit each year and analyze the news coverage they triggered. They're a wonderful way to maintain a clear perspective on the need for crisis management. Here's a link to the latest ICM Annual Crisis Report.

Want to read more about it?

prbookMy online readings in public relations were written to supplement typical PR textbooks. Topics run the gamut from basic terms and concepts of public relations through the evolution of the profession to performing various everyday tasks. Click here for the complete table of contents.

These articles address crisis communication:

Need to prepare for a crisis?

pen and paper Turney's Tips are how-to-do-it guides for PR tasks such as writing news releases, formatting speeches, and developing strategic communication plans. Originally developed to help students complete class assignments, they're equally helpful as desktop reminders for working professionals. Click here for a directory and links to the pdf format tip files.

These tip sheets help you communicate in a crisis:

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