Anyone who’s worked in communications and public relations (PR) for any length of time knows the fast eat the slow. There are tremendous benefits to getting your story out before your competitor does. It ensures your perspective is included in media segments and stories, and positions you and your clients as leaders in your respective field.
In the world of media, this phenomenon is similar to ‘news-jacking.’ The idea is to attach ones issue to issues currently in the news cycle. This increases the likelihood of coverage by ensuring one’s topic is timely and relevant.
But there are limits to this approach. There are times when news-jacking simply doesn’t work. Terror attacks and mass tragedies are fine examples. During times of crisis, standard communications tactics and strategies must be carefully evaluated. For instance, in normal circumstances, speed is the name of the game. In times of crisis, caution is warranted. As dutiful PR professionals, we’ll want to beat the other gals to the punch. However, it’s important to be thoughtful as well. One public relations firm is learning this the hard way. Following the June 12 tragic massacre of Latinx, African American and LGBTQ patrons of the Pulse night club in Orlando, Fla., Ascot Media Group, allegedly sent an ill-timed and insensitive press release and pitch promoting a book that is two years old. More than 100 people were killed or injured following Omar Mateen’s hate-inspired terror attack. Perhaps you can see why promoting a book on the backs of murder victims, just days after a horrific mass shooting could be called insensitive and exploitative.
After reading their pitch, I am offering this essay on best practices for communications following a tragedy such as a mass shooting. Here’s my recommendation for being effective in advocacy and public relations:
1. Just Say No: in the aftermath of a tragedy, utilizing that tragedy for personal gain in any way is unacceptably tactless. Even after several weeks have passed, I’m not sure it’s ever acceptable to connect a crisis to an ‘ask’ that will benefit you or your client financially. Just say no.
- Seek Counsel: even if an idea seems palpable to you, test the idea with colleagues, close friends and family. There have been many times when I’ve had what I thought was a winning idea only to have the concept shredded to pieces after sharing it with others. No, I’ve never tried to profit off of another person’s pain, but like most public relations professionals who’ve been in the business for some time, I’ve had other bad ideas. Had I proceeded without counsel, I would have missed valuable insight, and possibly hurt my or my organization’s brand.
- Think Carefully About the Mode of Media: if you are hoping to pitch an idea that is tied to a sensitive or controversial matter, test the idea with members of the media with whom you have a close relationship. This will allow you to get feedback from a small group of people who know you and your character. Moreover, think carefully about the most appropriate media platform. Following a crisis, it’s one thing to pitch yourself as an expert on TV to discuss the crisis or offer thought leadership on ways to move forward. It’s something entirely different to pitch a tangible product which would benefit you financially. The former is offered for the benefit of the whole. The latter seems self-serving and insensitive. In other words, if you plan to use a crisis as a launching pad to contribute thought leadership, it’s probably fine to proceed. Reconsider, however, if you are peddling a product. 5. Think Long Term: A solid communications plan should involve short and long term strategies and tactics. While we all want to land quick victories, it’s important to have a long-range approach. It’s pointless to land a short term victory that carries long term consequences. In this case, the public relations firm may have landed a few press hits, but what did they lose in capitalizing on the death of over a hundred innocent victims? If a press strategy will bring short term victories but compromise one’s brand long-term, it should be avoided.
These are my tips for navigating public relations during times of crisis. What are yours?