“You can't perfume manure.”
That’s what AKCG Public Relations Counselors President Chris Lukach had to say to companies wondering what to do if they find themselves saddled with a potential public relations crisis.
“No amount of communications makes unfortunate situations seem good,” he said.
In other words, use communication to address the issue forthrightly, and have a crisis management plan assembled in advance to handle it.
Lukach and others addressed ways businesses can manage financial and criminal crises, data breaches and issues of harassment at NJBIZ’s Crisis Management panel discussion Thursday at the Imperia in Somerset. The panel was moderated by former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, now a partner at law firm Connell Foley.
Joel Payne, vice president of corporate communications at public relations firm MWWPR in Washington, D.C., advised that businesses not be secretive or guarded about mistakes, otherwise they could turn into public relations crises.
“To own our past and to own the flaws of the past and say, ‘we did this the wrong way for a long time. Guess what? It's a new day,’” Payne said.
“I'd argue it's actually a business strategy to own it, to be a leader, to be a thought leader, and to take it as an opportunity to really set the trend in the right direction in this space,” he continued. “It's about attitude and about making sure that you have the right perspective in terms of how you want to approach and talk about it.”
And to have the right approach ready at the right time panelist Charles McKenna emphasized the advantages of having the right team in place. McKenna, general counsel and managing director of investigations, compliance, and crisis management at Livingston-based Renaissance Associates, has served in crucial crisis management roles in the public sector during such events as 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy.
“The first thing that any company really should be doing is putting together a crisis management study team to be looking at the organization, look at the vulnerabilities of the organization and then starting to put together a plan for how you're going to deal with any crises,” McKenna said.
A number of aspects of this plan will be the same across any crisis, he said, so stakeholders need to know who their management team is and who's going to do the communications for the business during a crisis.
“When there is a crisis you can pull out the plan, you can see who should be doing what, and then you can go to that particular appendix and see in this particular crisis what boxes we need to check,” McKenna said.
Payne said keeping the circle of those in charge tight to avoid decentralization and to make sure the decisions that need to be made are done quickly.
Guadagno wrapped the panel by emphasizing the use of disaster professionals — for communications and legal purposes — to stay on top of crises before they get out of proportion.
“Plan, train and practice all the time. Keep one of these guys or all of these guys (the panelists) on speed dial because they'll help you plan, train and practice, and then follow their advice.
“No plan is perfect, but having no plan is a disaster,” she said.