Not all marketers wear public relations hats. But even if the public relations professional is just down the hall, it makes sense to work in tandem. Marketers are all about messaging, and so are public relations staff. The difference is that public relations professionals often have to show their mettle during a crisis situation.
Having served on the frontlines as a public relations lead, I can assure you that the 30-second sound bite provided by a spokesperson during a crisis usually evolves from considerable behind-the-scenes strategizing. It's just fast-paced strategizing, and there's rarely a focus group or finely crunched data to back you up.
There's an irony to the situation that's not lost on the public relations person. In the 24/7 media environment, networks and reporters are willing to give your organization that coveted 30 seconds of notoriety for free. In fact, most reporters are just waiting for something to happen or for someone to say anything profound (think of those bored reporters and cameramen from all corners of the world awaiting action at the recent Michael Jackson trial).
The only problem is that your organization may not relish having such visibility at the time that opportunity arises.
Even good public relations people feel anxious when a media barrage occurs—and, granted, it doesn't initially feel like an opportunity to communicate strategic messages.
But it can be done by following some basic rules:
Develop four or five key sound bites. Provide solid information in your sound bites (remember the 5 Ws from journalism school) and always be literate. Don't sound like a 12-year-old answering parents' questions (e.g., avoid "stuff" and "kinda").
Sound intelligent, and paint images with words. The best and most eloquent quotes are repeated by the media. Consider this line from Nelson Mandela at a recent AIDS concert: "We live in a world where the AIDS pandemic threatens the very fabric of our lives. Yet we spend more money on weapons than on ensuring treatment and support for millions infected by HIV."
You can bet those are the words quoted from the event. Only a few sound bites are necessary. Too many will muddle the message and would be too cumbersome for the spokesperson to remember.
Choose the right spokesperson. Most likely, the right spokesperson isn't the public relations person. Unless the public relations staffer has completely studied the issue and can speak with the authority of someone intimately involved in the situation, choose someone else. The public relations person has a big enough job behind the scenes. The CEO isn't always the best choice, either, especially in a time of crisis when he or she could become easy media fodder.
The best choice is someone close enough to the top to be believable and a person involved in a well-regarded profession. A chief scientist or, in my line of work, a doctor is always preferable. Make sure that whoever you choose is properly trained before the cameras roll.
Have more than one spokesperson. In a 24/7 media barrage, one spokesperson can easily burn out, increasing the possibility of mistakes. Get a backup to share the job and make sure he or she is as well trained as your lead person. A Spanish-speaking spokesperson is also critical, considering the extent of Spanish-language media throughout the United States (not just California and Florida). Don't think you can rely on an English-speaking spokesperson for Spanish or other non-English press. It makes you look unprepared and insensitive to your community.
Become a media news source. This many sound outlandish, but don't be afraid to pitch another story even in the midst of a crisis. Reporters are always looking for stories; and, even if they're focused on the story du jour, they'll remember an interesting pitch. Also, read reporters' blogs. You can find out quite a lot about where their interests lie.
Work together with marketing. There are practical issues that need to be determined, including whether to continue running advertising during a media crisis. More important to your strategy, however, is formulating communications that are consistent with the messages relayed to the public during calmer times.
This is not to say the spokesperson should repeat branding taglines or quote your commercials. Instead, consider the themes you want carried forward after the crisis subsides. For example, if your brand stresses service excellence and the media is reporting the wrongdoing of an employee, don't ignore the mixed messages. Provide assurances that the matter is being addressed and service excellence will continue.
Last but not least, know that all crises do pass; the media will move on, and once again you'll be challenged to get your organization more visibility. It's all in a day's work for marketing and public relations pros.