How media & PR react to a crisis in the age of information overload and Trump

Oct 20, 2016
How media & PR react to a crisis in the age of information overload and Trump

Donald Trump may be the perfect metaphor for crisis communications today.  

A crisis has always brought out lots of internal corporate or personal angst and media coverage and the dark art of crisis PR.

But today, it seems like a crisis moves at warp speed – fueled by social media and cable news. In what may be a playbook for the future, when Trump tweets at 3 a.m. or steps into a controversy, his team, the Clinton campaign, voters and the media all react and the crisis hits overdrive.

In the media there is the first day story and then a second or third day story, but now those can evolve into an ongoing crisis. And while media is a huge part of crisis PR, it's also important to manage a crisis with all your stakeholders, government regulators and Congress.

Looking at such recent crises as drug price hikes, Wells Fargo, auto recalls, bombings/terrorism, hacking of accounts, Trump and Clinton, shootings, sports doping and cheating, food outbreaks and Samsung's exploding phones – they all have three things in common.

Somebody screwed up, stakeholders reacted and the media plowed into the mix.

It's normally left to the crisis PR experts to spin it or hold the line without making it worse. That's getting harder and harder to do.

Take Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who took heat for a 5,000 percent price hike for the anti-parasitic drug Daraprim, then defended it in the media. He needed to take PR advice but the media was happy to keep reporting his missteps.

If Trump is the metaphor for crises moving at warp speed, Shkreli is the poster child for stupidity: he didn't treat customers like they mattered; he ripped them off and arrogantly defended it.

And in the case of Wells Fargo Chairman and CEO John Stumpf, he blamed employees for creating illegal and unwanted accounts. He was called to the mat by Congress, the board of directors took away $41 million in stock, and finally "resigned."

Stumpf refused to make nice with his stakeholders, messed with Congress and the board. The media dutifully reported it all. Overall, it was a terrible crisis PR response.

Could Samsung officials be next if they can't fix the fallout over its exploding Galaxy Note 7 phones? The press can't resist this story and federal regulators have banned the phone from airplanes.

Other crisis PR lessons

Officials need to be on the same page and get it right when first talking to the media – for example in a bombing, is it terrorism or just a criminal act?

Officials should also make the public work for them. In the recent New York bombing, authorities used the emergency alert system to let people know via smartphones the name of the suspect they were looking for. It was a brilliant communications move.

The PR mantra: hold frequent media briefings and make the press work for you, too.

In the Yahoo data breach, it waited to disclose the breach of millions of customer email accounts. They and other companies have claimed they have to wait for regulatory and financial reasons before telling customers.

They should tell customers immediately. It's their information. And they shouldn’t hide behind the embarrassment or threat of lawsuits. It was their system and customers that were attacked.

Back to Trump and the 2016 campaign. Just about everyone and everything have been targeted by him. Then there's his tape insulting women, women accusing him of groping and sexual misconduct, and then there's Clinton emails. How to respond?

In a crisis like this, use all media channels -- and social media channels -- in true 24/7 fashion – be ready for 3 a.m. tweets. Don't stoop too low in responding.

Ten things for PR people and the media to remember in a crisis

  1. Keep the message simple; change it as needed to keep up with developments.

  2. Use the web and all social media channels wisely.

  3. Have one designated spokesperson with one consistent message. Do NOT have more than one spokesperson. This confuses the press.

  4. Hire a crisis PR agency.

  5. Keep up with the client's use of email and social media. Keep them on the reservation. Exhibit A: Donald Trump.

  6. If your client is flogged in the press daily, pick a select few outlets to give access to or hold some on or off the record briefings.

  7. If you promise the press something, deliver or they will never forget.

  8. The local media takes big stories personally so don't forget them as a crisis goes national.  

  9. Try to avoid no comment. Yes, sometimes you have to but it looks bad. Comment without commenting.

  10. If you have a gripe with a reporter’s story, talk to them first directly. Don't go over their head or bash them on social media.

Andrew Blum, principal of AJB Communications, has directed PR for a range of clients and has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years. or Twitter: @ajbcomms

Photo: Dominos via Shutterstock

About the author

Twitter feed of Andrew Blum of AJB Communications. Tweets on PR, media, assorted other topics. AJB Comms: PR, crisis PR, media training.

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