If you are a public relations (PR) professional you may have been faced with (or will be one day) with a crisis situation involving a client’s reputation. This post looks at answering the question: How to prevent such a mess in the first place?

Preliminary Meeting

When a PR professional* and a client meet, meaningful communication should begin right away. The client should see the public relations professional* or PR team as a trusted ally in his/her camp. I believe this initial communication could take the form of an honest two-way discussion between you, the PR practitioner, and the client discussing any potential issues that the client thinks may arise based on professional or personal considerations. This will be a private and strictly confidential discussion with no other third parties present and the information discussed will not be shared with anyone else. The public relations rep and the client should be able to speak freely about matters that may lead to gossip or be fodder for the media if released.

Regardless of how much information is gathered from this meeting, the following actions should be put into practice.

1. Give some practical common-sense ground rules: Speak to your client about principles of personal conduct that could save him/her lots of embarrassment, time, money and maybe even legal woes in the future. Below are some important things for you client to understand.

Know the power of the sound-bite.

Teach your client how to phrase remarks and answers in a way that is sound-bite-friendly. An easy mistake to make is giving a long-winded comment with a portion that would sound controversial if taken by itself. All statements and answers to the media, whether a sit-down interview or press conference, should be simple and to the point. Never use a sentence that is in danger of sounding derogatory or controversial if it is not clarified by a follow-up sentence.

The client must learn how to make independent statements, which means statements that could stand alone in a media sound-clip without sounding controversial. While follow-up statements may be necessary to clarify the comment, these follow-ups will not be necessary to prevent controversy. In today’s sensationalism-driven, fast-paced journalistic, social media-crazed world, statements and actions of public figures that have an air of controversy are jumped upon as a quick way to boost ratings, hits, likes or re-tweets. You don’t want your client’s name trending on the web for all the wrong reasons.

We live in the instant-information age. Privacy isn’t what it used to be.

Even in this day and age of cell phone photography and videography coupled with the power of amateur news dissemination through social media, those in the public eye still seem to not understand that they are always “on-camera.” To them it may be a friend’s birthday party, but with technology, their supposedly private-life actions could easily go viral on the world wide web. While clients may think it’s too strict and stifling that they cannot let loose when they’re not making a TV appearance or sitting down with a journalist or at a professional event, they must come to terms with the fact that being a modern-day politician or celebrity entails controlling one’s image at all times. As much as the client may not like to hear it, it really does come with the job.

Know your crowd.

Public figures must be mindful who they are hanging out with, because for many people the “birds-of-a-feather-flock-together” concept may still hold true. Not only could befriending a shady or wild crowd hurt a client’s reputation, but could also implicate the client in activities he/she is not involved with or supports. Also, there is the very real danger of certain people getting close to a public personality to divulge secrets or spread lies through the media for personal fame and/or profit. Also, while it is true that we usually don’t choose our family members, even family members who have questionable loyalties or integrity should not be trusted with sensitive information.

2. Develop key messaging: The public relations practitioner along with the client and any other organizational leaders should work on the key messages that will be used in the short-term, for example the next three months (this period is just an example and depends on personal, situational and industry circumstances) that will be a centrepiece of the client’s media activities. For instance a politician could use the following key messages:
  • “I will target government corruption.”
  • “I will save taxpayers more money.”
  • “I am determined to balance the budget.”
  • “I care about what the citizens have to say and will listen to them.”

These will be fleshed out by the PR practitioner, client and others involved in coming up with the key messages. It is important that the key messages truthfully reflect the client’s intentions, policies and practices. Documents should be created noting every angle that the key message covers. For example, the statement “I will save taxpayers more money” should have an entire document of its own outlining specific ways that this will be done. The idea is that there should be no question that a journalist could ask about the key statements that will surprise or detract from the client’s integrity or public image. And hopefully it goes without saying, the clients should actually plan to do what they say.

3. Be accessible: Clients should be accessible to the media on a regular basis. They should be prepared to give interviews and press conferences about new programs, policies, products, events, etc. that are based upon and include the key messages. Clients must be adequately prepared for all interviews and interviewers requesting an interview should be vetted by PR personnel to ensure they will give the best coverage to a client – an interviewer with a reputation for asking embarrassing questions or smearing reputations is not someone you want talking to your client.

If the purpose of the interview is to speak about professional accomplishments or industry issues, the interviewer should be given rules as to what type of questions are expected and which types of questions are off-limits. If interviews are more personal in nature, there should still be expectations in place. If it is deemed beneficial for a client to do a “no-holds-barred” type interview with a journalist who is known for asking piercing questions, it is important that the client truly have nothing to hide. If there are secret personal problems that could be exposed, it is better for the client to keep interviews professional and related strictly to job-related topics or to do soft-news interviews that do not dig deep into their personal lives, for example something that may be done for a day-time talk show.

It’s good to give the media a lot of material in the good times so the client isn’t seen as mysterious or someone who’s trying to hide something from the public. These kinds of clients may attract unwanted attention from curious reporters. Also, reporters may be quicker to report upon any unexpected news that comes out because there is such a news deficit about that person. It is better for the client and PR personnel to manage the media coverage than inquisitive reporters. However, if negative publicity does come out, there will still be a balance of positive coverage to act as a counterbalance in the eyes of the public. While the negative publicity may still overshadow the positive, it will not be the only view that the public is getting of the client.

*Throughout this blog I refer to the public relations professional (in different ways) in the singular form, but these singular references also apply to a public relations team of more than one PR practitioner. Therefore PR practitioner or PR representative also apply to more than one PR practitioner or a PR team.

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