PR emergency!

by Gail White. This article was originally written for a local government audience, but the principles it sets out are universal.

The 6 essential steps to diffusing a PR crisis – and 3 ways to avoid one

Local Government manages competing interests. Sometimes there will be conflict. And once in a while, media will see that conflict as news. They will seek to sensationalise events.

Sensation is always bad for LGAs, because sensation is based on discord and accusation. On the other hand, a sober and balanced evaluation of complex community issues is always good for LGAs, because it promotes understanding of their role.

Your goal is to diffuse the sensation component of the story, or at least to keep your Council out of it. Sometimes, once the sensation is gone, you might even turn the story positive.

There are six proven, essential steps.


1. Act first, act fast

For the public, silence is guilt. For a journalist, silence is a licence to write an accusative, one-sided story.

And in the media, first is all-powerful. People remember the accusation in the first story; they don't even notice the correction that eventually follows (if it ever does).

Immediately you become aware of media interest that may implicate your council, phone your key media list. Ask what's going on. Find out what their angle is.

Grit your teeth and ring the talkback radio programs and the TV current affairs programs. If you get to them first, with a deflation of the story, they may decide against running it.

If you can't refute any allegations immediately, emphasise that you want the chance to state your Council's position, and that you will call them back within an hour or two, as soon as you've checked it out.

At this early stage the journalist is still assessing the story in their mind. If you can defuse it there, it may never get to print or air. But if it settles into a hostile approach, it'll be hard to shift.

Give them your mobile number. Fax or email them your general media kit and any relevant information that's to hand.

If a journalist suggests that pressure of deadlines may cut you out of a story, ask immediately to speak with the editor about that, or phone the editor direct. Make the point forcibly that your viewpoint is essential to a balanced, fair report.


2. Make a statement

Send out a written statement, within a couple of hours at most.

Don't wait for all the facts, because that will take too long. Speed is more important than content. Whatever comes to hand later, you can put in a subsequent statement.

If the story is running, you can even make a statement with no facts, by emphasising your concern and detailing the steps you are taking. See the toolbox for ideas.

The most important thing about your first statement is that you make it immediately, showing that you are on the ball, in control, open and responsive.

For big issues it may be appropriate to call a media conference. Far better to do this on your own terms, in your own space, than to be ambushed on a doorstep.

Sometimes you might get away with making your statement only to the media that's pushing the story, if they then drop it. But if the story is going to run, send your statement to all media. You don't know which of them is considering picking it up, so you want to pre-empt all of them. Also, a widely dispersed story loses its exclusive value, making the initiating media less likely to pursue it if it's weak.


3. Be open

To a journalist, defensiveness smells like news.

To the journo hooked on sensation, open communication smells like something that can be left for the magazine section, maybe.

Before you defend yourself, be open. Make it clear there are no secrets and that no information will be withheld.

If appropriate, promise a full and public investigation. Agree that the situation may be different from your understanding.

Say that you want to hear all points of view and that you will set up meetings and other procedures to help people get heard.

Media has a very short horizon; stories which will take weeks to resolve are often dropped.

Once you have been open, you can refute any specific errors. Remember though, it is argument which gives a news story its sensation value; by engaging in the argument you may increase the news value. So stick to simple facts.

If you want the story off the front page, it's more important that you demonstrate a fair and open process is under way, than that you involve yourself in that process as a protagonist.


4. Acknowledge concerns

Acknowledge the legitimacy and priority of the concern, even if the issue is over-blown for self-serving purposes.

People have a right to be concerned. It's not up to you to tell them what to be concerned about; what you must do is answer their concerns.

Express sympathy, even if it what they're suffering is their fault. You don't have to be the one to blame them, and empathy does not imply guilt.

Point out however the possible concerns of other stakeholders or viewpoints, including ratepayers, businesses, environment, health, safety, town planning, traffic flow, quality of life, employment opportunities, disadvantaged groups, etc.

By acknowledging diverse concerns and positioning your Council as the conciliator between them, you deflect criticism and deflate the sensation value of the story.


5. Accept and assign responsibility

If your Council or an employee have made a mistake, acknowledge it.

There can be insurance issues here, but you can at least take responsibility for resolving the situation and its consequences, while an investigation is under way.

Accept responsibility without quibbling, where appropriate.

If it involves a staff member you may speak loyally in their defence, if the error was accidental and especially if the staff member was clearly trying to do the right thing under pressure (rather than pursuing self-interest or being lazy). People are tolerant of mistakes they might have made themselves, in similar circumstances.

If however your Council is clearly not to blame because another authority has ultimate control – and especially if you have previously tried to have the situation attended to – then say so, loud and clear. You may not want to offend another authority, even if it is their fault, but that is a far lesser evil than offending your electors and being exposed in the media for doing it.


6. Promise action...

Describe the path to resolution, and how you are going to progress along it. A problem in hand is not sensational news.

Announce that you have already initiated a full, open inquiry, with high priority and an urgent reporting deadline; that the public will be invited to contribute and that all findings will be public. Promise regular interim reports.

Call a public meeting, within days.

If the issue involves Council staff, announce that you have put them on alternate duties or if necessary suspended them pending the outcome. Reiterate that your Council has strong management procedures in place appropriate to the situation.

Announce immediate action to deal with any risks or immediate negative consequences of the problem, or to contain the problem, even if you believe it is not ultimately your responsibility.

Promise to lobby/continue to lobby the authorities who are really responsible, or whose cooperation is necessary before you can take action.

...and follow through!

Don't just do everything you promised: make sure you tell your residents and all the journos involved in the story that you have done what you promised.

For the journos, tell them regularly, each step of the way, and tell them in full detail with comprehensive supporting documents.

Why? Because you want journos to know, should they do another story involving you, that you can be trusted. And you also want them to know, if they are looking for quick sensation, that they'll have an easier time elsewhere.


The 3 ways LGAs can avoid PR crises

1. Rules of engagement, Chain of command

In a media crisis, it's imperative that contact with the media is controlled, but that it is immediate.

Create a media Chain of command, so there is always someone authorised and informed to make comments, who is immediately available.

Make it clear to all staff that only those in the media Chain of Command can make comments to the media. Be sure they understand that anything they say may be a comment, even casual conversation. "Off the record" and "background" are not safe modes of communication.

Staff should be pleasant and positive, but transfer media immediately to the designated Media officer.


2. Advance planning

Every LGA deals every day with sensitive issues. Most of them pass without media attention, but some clearly are going to be scrutinised, or might be.

Institute a policy that Council officers handling issues should include in the file notes a media risk assessment. Anything that involves a high probability of potentially adverse attention should be flagged to your PR officer.

The file itself should be prominently marked, so anyone using it is aware – and is reminded of the Media Rules of Engagement

Your PR officer should then draw up a contingency plan which identifies the risks and suggests strategies for dealing with them.

For high risks, media statements should be drafted in advance, covering the main possibilities. Then you can respond very quickly.

Make sure every single member of staff is fully unformed. Staff who are left in the dark are often the source of rumours, as they try to guess what's being kept from them.

If it's going to be a major public issue, start an information and consultation process as soon as possible. Make it clear, from the outset, that there will be many opportunities to contribute and a steady flow of information. People are far more likely to accept change which is flagged in advance, detailed before it happens, and implemented in small steps.


3. Media relations

Journalists are human too. They tend to avoid or tone down negative stories about people they have an ongoing relationship with, who have helped them in the past.

If they know that you usually will comment, and that what you say is informed and authoritative, then you are more likely to be asked for your side of a story.

You get to this happy position by maintaining contact, by knowing their names and inviting them to functions, by making a point of speaking to them when you see them and by providing them with helpful information and comments when they need it to bolster a story.

You should also have a standard media kit which backgrounds your LGA, the people in it and the issues it faces. This is quite different from a tourist or new resident kit: it must look at you from a news viewpoint.

Update and send your kit and send it out regularly, including to new journalists. Have it to hand whenever you're responding to a crisis, and give one to every journo you meet that way for the first time. They'll appreciate the help and make fewer mistakes about you.


A toolbox for fast Media Statements

Consider some of these responses.

People have got a right to be concerned about this. It's a serious issue.

The Council has launched a full investigation and I'll be making a detailed public report as soon as we have the facts.

Council is totally with local residents on this. We want the issue resolved. We've been trying to draw attention to it for months.

This issue will not be resolved until the State Government changes the law to recognise the wishes of local people. That's what we've been pushing for.

A mistake has been made. I apologise for that. We're working to rectify it, immediately – and to make sure it can't happen again.

If anyone has any concrete information about this, please come forward. We want to get to the bottom of it.

No-one has complained to Council. If they do, we will act on that complaint.

This is an important issue; it's up to the community to decide the priorities it wants, then we can implement them.

This is a problem Council has been crying out about. The governments must deal with it. Nothing can change until the Government takes action.

This is an ongoing issue, that recurs regularly.

Of course developers want to push ahead, and maximise their profits. But Council has to also meet the expectations of residents and all the relevant laws.

We are not batting for the developers. We've required the developers to reveal full details for public comment. We're acting on all public comments. Many changes have already been made as a result and that process is continuing. We're assessing environmental, health and local amenity impacts and we're considering the proposal within the overall plan for the area. In the end, Council will listen to the community and do what's best for the community – not any one group or financial interest.

Unfortunately, the people in that section have been under considerable stress due to (a surge in building applications, unseasonal weather, some other real reason). A judgement was made which in hindsight could have been better. But the people involved were doing their best under difficult circumstances. They weren't being lazy or seeking personal gain. I think it's wrong to blame them.

There will be a full public inquiry. Anyone who wants to state their point of view will be listened to. All evidence will be considered.

There is an established process for dealing with this, that gives everyone a fair hearing.

Council wants to do the right thing. We're consulting with our residents, to find out what they want.

There will be full public disclosure, information will be available and there will be a public comment period, including public meetings where people can ask questions. If our residents are against it, then Council will listen to them.

If this is to go ahead, ratepayers will have to pay for it. Ultimately, it's up to them how much money the Council has available.

Council is not promoting this idea. We are opening it for public comment, so we can find out what our residents think. Until then, Council has no position, for or against.

Of course it's an important point. But Council also has to consider the requirements of other residents who...

If our ratepayers could afford every request like this, it would be great.

Nothing is being kept secret here. Any resident can get full information direct from the Council. We'll answer any questions.

This issue keeps coming up every few years, it's nothing new.

Accusations/claims like that are just part of the normal rough and tumble of local politics. I don't think people are fooled.

There has been a public comment period. Full information was available. Residents were notified. No-one said boo until it became a convenient political football.

(If the issue is really a beat-up, you might issue a challenge): I challenge you to come up with proof of a single existing complaint by a resident who does not have a financial interest.

This has been talked about for years. People have been fully informed.

We're doing our best for local people. But we have to work within the laws laid down by State and Federal Governments.

If that's what people want, Council will try to make it happen. Our decisions reflect what our residents want.

This is the result of outdated laws. We've lobbied the State Government repeatedly to get it changed. Only the State Government can fix it; the ball's in their court and it's been there for years.

There's nothing to be gained by people slinging off at each other, throwing accusations around. Council wants a resolution that balances the needs and rights of everyone involved. The only way to get that is by talking openly – and by listening. That's what the public meetings are for.