Shawn Warmstein|Mar 1, 2011

The day of the retraction is dead. Corporations are guilty until proven innocent. Image is (mostly) everything. Those were messages communicated in a recent speech by Public Relations Society of America president Rosanna Fiske while addressing a group of local PR professionals in Miami.

Fiske went on to say that at a time when WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is considered a maverick, and the public clamors for information in the time it takes to type 140 characters, both sides of the story do not always matter.

But this is not news. The question is: What can companies do to effectively manage their image and control the headlines in the face of crisis?

As public relations professionals, it’s our job to help clients navigate this new state of crisis communications in which allegations can be made without merit and news outlets are always hungry for the latest salacious headline. And trust me, no matter how sophisticated or smart a client is, a crisis can happen to any corporation.

Transparency, a clearly defined message and a strong reputation are the building blocks for crisis communications. Case in point: Recently, a client was being condemned by a group that was aiming to bring down a larger target. Attacking the client was a means to achieving this goal. This group was taking facts out of context and making false claims with little regard for the damage it could cause to our client. But, as the group was also backing a popular stance on a hot button topic, the negative impact these accusations could have on our client were overlooked by the audience.

Utilizing the building blocks of crisis communications, how did we help our client navigate this situation?


The best way to deal with a crisis is to show the public that you have nothing to hide. (After all, how many times do people say, “If a company doesn’t want to tell us something, they must have something to hide.”) Our client has always remained true to their mission, so we urged them to not only restate this commitment, but to also demonstrate it by presenting cold hard facts to those who were questioning them.

The result – a greater understanding by the audience of what our client does and an education opportunity that will make people think twice before accepting all claims as fact in the future.

Clearly defining the message

While urging clients to be transparent about their business in the face of crisis is important, having a clearly defined message/response is just as crucial. To earn back trust from your audience, you want to make sure that you are communicating a message that establishes a position, offers a clear take on the situation and, where appropriate, reminds the audience why you are great in the first place.

In the case with this particular client, we crafted messaging and Op-Ed’s that spoke to the client’s role within the community (reminding the audience why they were important and a vital partner), refuted the false claims and highlighted past charitable projects (undermining a message of greed by the challenger).

Strong reputation

While the two abovementioned building blocks are key to effective crisis communications, “having a leg to stand on” and a strong reputation are what lend credence to an argument when the situation is reaching a tipping point.

For example, in the ’80s Coca-Cola famously introduced “new Coke.” Everyone is quite familiar with the public backlash that followed, and the company quickly retreated to its “original formula.” But what helped them survive was a strong brand reputation.

As in the situation with Coke, our client also had a well-established reputation and was able to leverage this to gain back the favor of its audience. While crisis communication is often centered on image (present opinion), reputation (the people’s opinion of the brand’s value) is what can be a saving grace.

Though every situation calls for a customized response, utilizing these building blocks positions a client to succeed in dealing with a crisis. Remember, America loves giving second chances, so the way a company responds will determine whether they are viewed as the comeback kid or just a chump.


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