I have two younger brothers. They’re both boy scouts. If there’s been anything drilled into their brains, it’s “Be Prepared.” This isn’t simply an overused phrase quoted hundreds of times in dozens of movies. It’s wise advice people take for granted because it’s heard too often. Being prepared is the best safeguard against bad things. Being prepared can make a big difference in any aspect of life, but especially in public relations. Being prepared in PR can be the difference between the life and death of an organization or it’s reputation.
Prepare for crisis
In public relations, we prepare for crisis by living what we call proactive public relations. Proactive means we’re actively thinking about and working on a plan for a crisis before the crisis happens. The Disaster Recovery Journal had an article warning that the time to start thinking about crisis planning is not during the disaster. It should be “an ongoing methodical process that is put into action long before it becomes necessary.”
Why be proactive?
To put it plainly, crises are not scheduled events. They aren’t going to appear on your calendar with advanced warning. They don’t politely give you time to plan. Crises are crises because they’re unexpected. As author Jonathan Bernstein pointed out, crises aren’t confined by anything. They can happen to anyone at anytime. No one’s immune. He cautioned that failing to prepare can end up causing more damage. That makes sense. Think about it. If your company ends up in a crisis and you don’t know how to respond, you look stupid. People will think worse of you because you’re unprepared and unequipped to handle the situation. Typically, the sooner the crisis is dealt with, the better. If you aren’t prepared, it’ll take longer to fix.
What to prepare
Now on to the part where I calm you down. I hope I didn’t frighten you at the prospect of future crisis. You’re probably thinking, “there is no way to prepare for everything that could happen!” You’re right. Author Michelle Gilbert admitted the same, but she said it’s possible to plan for the unexpected. If you are competent enough about the organization to relate to various publics, then you should know it well enough to plan for possible disasters.
1. Prepare inside the organization. Preparing inside means you have a designated plan. As Bernstein suggested, this plan needs to have a defined crisis team and one spokesperson. Each person needs to know their role and what will be expected. People within the organization need to communicate well with one another. Nothing will work if the internal part of preparation isn’t solid.
2. Prepare the reputation of the organization. The Disaster Recover Journal listed three aspects a company needs to develop before a crisis hits, namely: credibility, a positive reputation and good will. If a company has these aspects firmly in place before a crisis, when these qualities come under attack, it’ll go much better. As the Journal stated, “None of these qualities can be generated during a crisis. They need to exist in advance.”
3. Prepare outside the organization. Media relations may be the single most important relationship during a crisis. If not the most important, it’s definitely a top priority. During these disastrous situations, the media have a lot of influence over a company’s reputation based on what they cover, what they say and how they say it. If you have a good relationship with the media built on trust and mutual understanding, it will be easier for you when these situations arise.
One aspect of proactive PR I hadn’t considered was consistency. Author Brian Hill recommended updating the plan on a consistent basis. He recommended doing a yearly evaluation, but I think it will be different based on the organization. In the end, I think proactive public relations fits into the four-step PR process of research, planning, implementation and evaluation. You have to understand the organization and plan for possible crises. If a crisis occurs, you implement your plan and then evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts. My professors always warn that evaluation isn’t just something you do at the end, but at every stage. Proactive public relations is the best way to be prepared for a crisis. If you don’t have one yet, there’s no time like the present!