Is Your PR Team Keeping You Honest?

The ongoing fiasco that is the “misremembering” manifesto of now-quarantined NBC news anchor Brian Williams is providing endless comedic fodder for pundits and political commentators on both sides of the aisle.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the venerable face of NBC Nightly News has been sidelined for the next six months without pay after being caught in a rather fictitious recounting of a high-stakes Iraqi helicopter incident. On the record, Williams said that he was in the helicopter that was actually hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, though he was not in that helicopter at all. Instead, Williams was truly in the helicopter flying behind the one that was struck.

Now analysts and armchair fact-checkers are putting Williams under the microscope and going through his previous tales with a metaphorical fine-toothed comb. Media personnel, legal experts and casual observers are asking questions: Did he actually lie on purpose? Was Williams simply embellishing to make the story more riveting? How have egos and the culture of personality shaped the objectivity of the news viewers see in the 21st century? Can the human mind unintentionally forget information and supplement gaps with manufactured details, with no nefarious or deliberate intent?

Whatever the debate as the debacle unfolds, public relations pros and organizational communications staffers should take notice. This teachable moment offers plenty of lessons in how organizational leaders within nonprofits and socially responsible companies can avoid such a media mishap.

Plan ahead. In this age of practically instantaneous reporting, the opportunity for organizations to get in front of a story is challenged like never before. In just moments, a detractor’s or alarmist’s status update or blog post can turn the tide. At the same time, social media technologies can be leveraged for organizational advantage. These days, while the initial spin may be swayed by “who gets there first,” the ultimate “media memory” and reputational outcome are often determined by which side deploys the most strategic and sustained communications outreach. And that’s where organizations have leverage. “Having an executable crisis communications or incident response plan in this day and age is critical,” explains Vanessa Wakeman, CEO of events planning and public relations firm The Wakeman Agency.

Admit mistakes. If your organization has misrepresented information, issuing a correction or, in some cases, an apology can be a tough move in the short-term, but a worthwhile step is preserving relationships and reputations in the long run. According to the International Association of Business Communicators, an apology features four parts: 1) acknowledging the crisis; 2) accepting responsibility; 3) detailing corrective steps; and 4) expressing concern or regret.

Be forthright. “Respond in a timely manner, or people will draw their own conclusions,” offers Wakeman. Any lull in answering questions or responding to reporter outreach can impart an unfavorable impression about what’s going on behind the scenes. Even if an organization is still formulating its responses or vetting them through the proper internal legal channels, media reps should be responsive to requests, even if simply letting news agencies know when a statement will be provided or if an interview will be granted.

Stay on script and flow information through the chain of command. Talking points clearly define the boundaries of what can – and cannot – be said or shared with media or other external audiences. Well-crafted talking points empower leaders to speak authoritatively and preparedly. By preemptively anticipating which questions may be probed, formulating clear responses and allotting adequate lead time in preparing the interviewees with them, PR advisors reduce the odds of an accidental gaffe. “Make sure everyone associated with the organization has been briefed on the appropriate talking points,” affirms Wakeman.

What are some of the biggest crisis communications challenges facing organizations today? Which unique crisis communications considerations do organizations in the social enterprise or nonprofit sphere face?

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