Putting out fires: How Public Relations professionals handle PR disasters

picture of a Centennial College Public Relations Corporate Communications program graduate wearing business professional and talking on a cellphone outside in a city setting

It seems like every other day some celebrity is doing something stupid on social media — whether it's arguing with fans or reporters, "leaking" personal photos or videos, or having a temper tantrum. But while most people grab their popcorn and enjoy as the potential scandal unfolds in real time, I always have the same thought: "I would hate to be their PR (public relations) team!"

That's because an effective PR professional not only has to have fantastic communications skills but also be ready to put out proverbial fires set by his or her clients, rebuild and prevent future fires. That's why PR professionals and agencies are employed in every aspect of every industry, including: hospitals and health care providers, government ministries and agencies, trade associations, not-for-profit organizations, financial institutions, entertainment companies, and public and private business.

During a typical day, PR professionals develop press materials such as press releases or emails and send them out to the media, speak to members of the media, update their media contact lists, identify coverage opportunities, speak to their clients, plan new angles and campaigns, schedule interviews, plan events, accompany their clients on media junkets, and contribute to blogs and social media.

But when an emergency arises, PR professionals have to go from zero to 100 — quickly. Crisis management is an aspect of a PR professional's job they hope to never encounter but are well prepared for. That's because crisis management (AKA damage control) starts long before an emergency through brainstorming potential crisis scenarios and having templates of press releases, blog posts, web pages, status updates and tweets that can serve as a base and be tweaked. They also have a team in place and trained spokespeople ready to go at a moment's notice.

Because things move fast during a PR crisis, it may be tempting to fire off a response using those handy dandy templates. But a wise PR person first investigates. He or she checks what is being said on social media networks, in the blogs and on various media platforms. Just as important is tuning in emotionally and actually listening to people. Only once research is complete does a PR person formulate a response. It is always best to respond through the same medium where the incident first occurred or was documented. They also prepare key messages to share with the company's staff and stakeholders because it is essential to be consistent about the facts of the issue, the response to it, what actions are being taken, and what's coming next.

Being transparent is part of looking credible in the face of an emergency. This involves facing the media and answering those tough questions so PR people have to be comfortable in front of cameras, or designate a spokesperson such as the president of the company.

Once the worst is over, it is time to turn the PR disaster into some positive messaging. Here comes what's known as a PR spin. This is an opportunity to send out positive news and update — early and often. PR professionals will also share materials such as testimonials, press releases and blog posts about the great work of the company or brand.

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes, the PR professionals assess the crisis management strategy. Was the team able to minimize the story? How could they have better managed the news cycle? Did they act quickly but effectively? Revising PR emergency strategies is like installing new smoke detectors to avoid another PR fire in the future.

Oh, and if you love communications but can't imagine the possibility of putting out fires, there is another option. Corporate communications is the other aspect of public relations. The two terms often overlap but corporate communications focuses more on internal and external communications activities of an organization. Internally, you may help to build bridges between departments through internal newsletters or bulletins or alert staff to upcoming events the organization has scheduled. Externally, you may do everything from writing annual reports for investors to participating in community working groups.

You can learn the skills you need for careers in corporate communications and public relations at Centennial College's Public Relations - Corporate Communications program. This offering is based at the Story Arts Centre and Pickering Learning Site. This is one of the most highly regarded PR programs in the Greater Toronto Area. It also includes real world experience when students head out on an eight-week field placement in the industry.

By Izabela Szydlo

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