Stay ahead of the story

Whether it’s crisis communications or just the usual publicity, practicing proactive PR can make or break your company’s reputation.
0523 Editorialcontent Feat Proactivepr

We’ve all seen examples of companies failing to get out ahead of a potentially negative story or situation and paying the price. Despite what some famous people apparently believe, there is such a thing as bad press, and reputational damage can quickly lead to harm for a business’ bottom line if it doesn’t act in a timely manner to control the message.

That’s easier for large companies that have dedicated communications and public relations staff — though by no means is it a guarantee — but for small businesses, knowing how and when to respond to a crisis is a taller task when your PR person on the payroll likely wears other hats, including owner.

Proactive PR is typically when a company acts offensively through consistent efforts to build brand credibility and exposure. Reactive PR is more defensive in nature, responding to negative or relevant press and repairing company image when necessary. However, when considering crisis communications, it’s often better to be out in front of the story, if you can, rather than letting someone else tell the story in a way that reflects more negatively on your brand.

In these cases, proactive PR would be releasing a statement and reaching out to partners, customers, the media, and the public at the first sign of trouble with reassurances that the company is aware of the situation and is taking immediate steps to deal with it.

Conversely, a company could choose to stay quiet, hoping the situation will pass with little notice. It may, but in this day and age, the story could also leak to outside parties and quickly spread. By the time the company issues a response, the narrative has likely already been set by someone else.

“Choosing to be exclusively reactive could land your business and its brand on shaky ground,” says Heather Ripley, founder and CEO of Ripley PR, a Tennessee public relations firm. “Think about all the times you saw an interview following a crisis where a company executive was unprepared, resulting in regretful comments. Or what if you waited until every detail of an event was planned out before you began promoting it? You may not have a single guest show up. To establish your brand and regularly communicate with your target audience, taking a proactive approach could prove more effective.

“A PR plan shouldn’t wait for readers to stumble across a blog or hope that a news station will reach out to write a story,” Ripley continues. “Being proactive means building bridges before you need them and establishing a strong market presence throughout the life of your brand — not just when you have a new product to launch or a promotional event to host.”

Artful crisis communications

Shari Gasper, communications director for the Overture Center for the Arts, knows a thing or two about handling a difficult situation.

On March 13, 2020, in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 cases across the local community and the world, Overture closed its doors, canceling all performances and events.

“As a performing arts center that was closed indefinitely, we were faced with a major problem: How do we continue to provide ‘extraordinary experiences for all’ (Overture Center’s vision), and how do we ‘support and elevate our community’s creative culture, economy, and quality of life through the arts’ (Overture Center’s mission) when we couldn’t be together in person?” Gasper wrote in a retrospective article for PRSA Madison. “And ultimately, if we couldn’t fulfill our vision and mission, how would Overture Center survive the pandemic?”

Shortly after closing its doors, Overture made its first major move, an act of financial preservation. In June 2020, Overture took steps to reduce its overhead costs and workforce by 60%, a difficult move but one that also enabled it to continue moving forward at a time when revenue wasn’t coming in.

Overture also didn’t wait to be told what to do. The Overture Center staff stayed informed and sought out research and data from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Madison & Dane County, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and more. Through many meetings and conversations, Overture created a communications campaign designed to position itself for the time when its doors would reopen.

“Our key public was our donors, the people who know us best, who have supported us in the past and believe in our mission,” Gasper said. “Next, the campaign focused on subscribers and ticket buyers, people who know us and like us.”

Overture held its “Intermission Campaign” from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, 2020, with a goal of raising $1.5 million to support the center and its programming while it remained closed.

“Our strategies were to motivate people to give by spreading the message of our plight to our key publics, so they know about our need for their financial support, and to inspire people to give by sharing impact stories, so our key publics know why it’s important to support Overture,” explained Gasper.

“Our tactics included targeted emails, a donor newsletter featuring articles about the intermission and the fundraising campaign, press releases to local media to help spread our message, and a new virtual Overture Forum series to share information and stay connected with our community. We also started the Overture blog, featuring numerous stories from artists, volunteers, donors, and fans. Overture worked to stay in front of our patrons and donors, sharing stories about our impact in the community and our need for support.”

When the campaign wrapped up at the end of 2020, Overture had received more than 2,200 donations and raised $2.2 million.

Overture’s second objective was marketing and communicating to the public the center’s digital arts experiences to drive participation in online events. The programs were publicized on Overture’s website and social media, and the center issued e-newsletters, targeted emails, reminders, thank-you notes, and press releases to give attention to the 21 virtual events it ended up hosting in 2020.

The third objective for Overture was making sure the public was well informed about the center’s health and safety policies during its reopening phase from September to December 2021. The strategy was to communicate the health and safety information in as many ways and places as possible.

“We posted policies on our website, drawing attention to our health and safety page through a red alert bar at the top of each screen as well as on each event page,” Gasper noted. “Messages popped up during the ticket buying process, and all pertinent details were included in our ‘Know Before You Go’ emails. Signs were posted on all exterior doors, and even the local media mentioned our policies in articles and TV news segments.

“Testimonials were helpful in this stage of the campaign as well, hearing from people who attended shows and said they felt safe and appreciated our health and safety policies,” added Gasper. “Our 18-month intermission was the most challenging and uncertain time in the organization’s history, and communications played a major role in everything we did.”

PR and the media

Diana Henry, director of public relations at Market Crafters in Madison, is a former television news journalist who knows about working with the media to communicate your message from both sides of the relationship. She offers some tips on how best to work with the media to tell your story, in your way.

  1. Be quick to respond to media inquiries.

Even if it’s a no, follow up. Reporters are on deadlines, and if you don’t respond you’re likely to get the dreaded, “We were unable to reach Company X for comment,” tacked onto the story. To the public, that just seems evasive.

  1. Acknowledge media requests.

Let reporters know you’ve received their call, text, or email inquiry, and you plan to respond to them in a set amount of time. Then, make sure you actually respond when you said you would.

  1. Be accessible.

In the case of responding to a potential crisis, make sure you or someone from your organization has the dedicated task of responding to inquiries from the media or other companies you do business with. It’s understandable that you might be up to your neck in dealing with the situation, but someone should be available to address what’s going on and reassure the public. If people don’t hear from you, they’re more likely to fill in the blanks themselves, and those initial perceptions can be hard to change after the fact.

Don’t forget internal communications

When addressing various stakeholders, the most important group should be your own people. There’s no worse feeling than getting asked about something you should know, but don’t.

This should obviously apply to your communications team or spokesperson. They need to know everything about a situation, not just what you plan to tell the public. Invariably, people will ask questions, and if your company spokesperson doesn’t have the answers — or isn’t able to find them — that’s a bad look.

It should go without saying that lying when you don’t know the answer is never advisable. If asked a question you can’t answer, admit you don’t know but will make sure to get that answer as soon as possible. Then, make a point when you get the answer to publicly address it, so it doesn’t seem like you ignored the question.

Just as important as keeping your communications team informed is spreading awareness among the rest of your employees as well. You might think that the more people who know about the situation, the harder it might be to control it, but that’s generally not the case. Your employees want to feel included and informed, and there’s less chance of disinformation spreading if you’ve kept your people in the loop.

Hold an in-person or virtual meeting to communicate with your staff as soon as you’re able about a potential crisis. Let them know what you know and ensure them that you will do your best to address all their questions.

Follow up with emails or a FAQ on your company intranet that responds to those questions and provides any new information as it becomes available. Update it as often as necessary and be as transparent as possible. Confidential information should never be shared but there’s often a lot you can still say about a situation to let your employees know that you’re handling it appropriately and have everyone’s best interests — including theirs — at heart.