Crisis Communication Provides Outreach Opportunities

David Menzies 919-274-6862by Dave Menzies

Is bad news ever good news in the business world? It can be, at least in the realm of public relations. The trick is knowing how to approach situations when things don’t go as planned to turn crisis situations into respectable outreach opportunities.

The bad publicity myth

You may have heard the phrase, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” uttered in relation to making the best out of a bad situation. Well, of course there is such a thing as bad publicity, and nine times out of ten it’s because it’s handled incorrectly.

Here’s an example: when I was working for a respected institution of higher learning with a major medical center, there were two incidents — one on the university side, and one on the health side — that garnered major international attention. One involved some bad decisions by students that snowballed into a maelstrom of public anger, and the other was an accident by medical technicians that likely could have been avoided.

With the student incident, the university’s communications department — with the blessing and coordination of senior university leadership — convened PR pros from a wide swath of various university offices, centers, and schools to coordinate a plan to provide as much transparency as possible about the incident while leverage all media contacts to disseminate news and information about the great number of positive programs and efforts on behalf of the university.

The health side of the house took a different approach, one I like to call the ostrich approach. Lawyers convinced the medical center leadership to enact a virtual news blackout, providing zero transparency and keeping the media at arm’s length. This had the effect of causing the media to dig deeper, suspecting a cover-up, and began a downward spiral of negative press.

In the middle of the medical center debacle, one of the higher ups at the university communications department literally barged into a meeting of the lawyers and medical center leadership, demanding they unleash the hands of the talented PR pros on the health side of the house. Grudgingly, they agreed, and eventually the news flow started dampening much of the public anger, and the publicity stream turned from negative to positive.

Most businesses don’t have large public relations operations like the aforementioned university, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take-on bad publicity. For example, I had a client once that was literally a three-person operation in the very niche field of competitive bike racing. This client transported bikes for competitors across the country; very expensive bikes, to be exact, and with sponsors, advertisers, and TV coverage there are a lot of logistics involved in the sport which my client handled for riders.

It just so happened that one of my client’s trucks containing tens of thousands of dollars worth of bikes was stolen during transport to an event. The news quickly made it into the online community of competitive bike racing, and competing transport and logistics companies were quick to pounce on the news.

My advice to my client was to take the transparency approach; we put together an informative, succinct letter from the company president and posted it on the company website. We also contacted all their customers to let them know what was happening and what efforts were underway to deal with the situation, as well as take extra measures to protect the other bicycles. We stayed very active in the online community, disseminating a link to the letter and regularly updating the situation. We even reached out to industry news media and solicited their help in reporting the facts of the story, focusing on the efforts to remedy the situation.

As a result we were able to give existing customers peace of mind as well as reach new prospects, positioning the company as one that is responsive to customers’ needs and engaged in the competitive racing community.

The luxury of the bicycle company response, as well as the university one was that we had strategic messaging already developed to plug in to any outbound communication. This messaging highlighted the value proposition of the client — whether the university or the bicycle company — while providing important details including where to go to get more info. With the messaging in hand, it was simply a case of pulling the trigger and being as transparent as possible with the facts of the bad situation.

In the end, people just want to know that someone is looking out for them. In crisis communication, this can be achieved by acknowledging there is a problem, reaching out to those affected, and keeping everyone informed of efforts to make things right.

Once you have everyone’s attention, and you’ve turned their anger and frustration into appreciation, don’t just walk away from the opportunity. Keep the conversation going with some good PR, and the positive results will speak for themselves.

– Dave Menzies is an award-winning PR coach, consultant and trainer. An advocate for America’s startup community, he provides group training and individual mentoring opportunities including PR101, PR201, and PR301 online courses designed for bootstrapping entrepreneurs. For more info give Dave a call at (910) 899-8935 or shoot him an email at

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