How To

How to handle a public relations crisis

4 tips for putting out fires from John Ratchford, principal of Navigator, Canada’s top crisis communications firm

Figure in the  middle of a dense media scrum

(Tara Walton/Toronto Star/Getty)

John Ratchford, general counsel and principal, at Navigator, the country’s top crisis communications firm, shares his hard-won knowledge on why acting like an ostrich is always a bad strategy:

1. Have a plan

“The majority of the work is done before there’s ever a crisis. The first thing is to identify the types of situations you might face. It could be poor financial performance, or allegations against executives or the board; it could be regulatory issues or a data breach. There are accidents, fires, releases of noxious substances—we’ve even had clients who have dealt with hostage situations. Then you need to put notification systems in place. If you have operations around the world, how will a local office get information back to head office as quickly as possible? Identify the audiences you’ll need to speak to—regulators, shareholders, customers, suppliers and so on. Don’t forget about your employees. They can become messengers for you. It sounds mundane, but you need to know how to reach the CEO, COO and CFO in the middle of the night. You don’t want to be doing this work after a crisis hits.”

2. Don’t delay

“There’s a big judgment call to be made at this point, to confirm whether there’s even a crisis that needs to be addressed. Our clients don’t want to create a bad story, but there’s also a tendency to put your head in the sand and hope it blows over. My view is that bad news will eventually come out. If you decide to keep quiet and ultimately find out you do need to communicate, that delay is going to look like deception to outsiders.”

3. Start talking

“Ideally, the crisis falls into one of your pre-identified categories. From there, it’s just communicating what you know to your various audiences. Companies used to get the operational and legal issues dealt with first, but nowadays a media report doesn’t disappear, and a story in Timmins, Ont., will be searchable in Tokyo. So we advise communicating simultaneously while working on the other parts of a crisis response. People consuming media know they’re not going to get the entire story at the outset. You’re able to say that something has happened, but you don’t have all the details and will provide more information as it becomes available.”

4. Keep talking

“Clients are usually eager to get back to their regular operations, but it can be advantageous to talk about what happened for months, even years, afterward. We worked for a hospital that had a situation with violence in the workplace. One of the ways they responded was to create a committee on workplace violence, and they met with stakeholders in the community who were concerned about the issue. Ten years on, they still have a regulator meeting with that group. Today they’ve become a leader on that issue. That really is the best possible outcome: After it’s all said and done, you pivot to being a champion on the issue.”