It’s in the Name
Public Relations is about (surprise!) your relationship with the public. It is not about marketing your products. That’s Marketing. Too many businesses don’t understand the difference, and therefore don’t understand the need for PR. The need for PR is a topic for another time, but it needs to be understood that reputation is something that hangs with you. And when something goes wrong–and something will go wrong–the relationship you have built with the public will often be the deciding factor between disapproving looks and wagging fingers on the one hand, or the pitchforks and torches of righteous outrage on the other.
Once you’ve realized that PR is important, the first question you have to ask yourself is: “What’s the worst that could happen?”–and then be honest about the answer. What happens if our e-mails are leaked? What if our CEO is arrested? What happens if our factory explodes? You need 2 things: 1) a plan to deal with the situation, and 2) a strong relationship with, and the trust of, your customers, colleagues, and the community at large.
For the former, you sit down with the heads of security, IT, health & safety, and (of course) PR. and work out a set of protocols for dealing with whatever sort of tragedy you can think of. In many cases, that plan might be as simple as “call 911 and get out of the way”. In others it might be a long list of steps to assure that everything is being handled properly.
Sit Down and Shut Up
When tragedy strikes, the first reaction is usually to leap up and start talking. DON’T. Part of your disaster plans should include well-worded statements written by your PR department (and approved by the legal department) that basically say “we’ll talk when we actually know what’s going on”. Statements made in the heat of the moment will come back to haunt you.
Reputation is Everything
The latter of the two preparations–reputation–starts right now. Everything you do–every interaction you have with suppliers, customers, and the community–builds your reputation. Details matter. Attitude matters. Words matter. And they matter differently in different cultures. In some cultures, good deeds should be trumpeted. In others they should be done with silent humility. You need to understand the culture in which you operate in order to understand how to build the correct relationships. When disaster strikes, your reputation is going to be one of the most important weapons in your arsenal for defending yourself.
The Devil’s Advocate
Reputation is an on-going process. It’s never finished. I highly recommend that every company have one person whose job it is to play the Devil’s Advocate. Their job is to ask “how can this go wrong?” and then answer it in as many ways as possible. There won’t be a solution to every problem that might arise, but a good overview of possibilities will help you to make the right decisions if (when) the need arises.
Listen to your customers, talk to your colleagues in the industry, get advice from your friends (hire consultants!). Sit down and ask yourself: If a metaphorical fire broke out today, would the community grab buckets of water and help us put it out? Or would they grab buckets of popcorn and enjoy watching us burn?
If you’re honest with yourself, you might not like the answer you see.