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Hot Seat Makes a PR Job Sizzle


By Steven Paul, Kentucky Employers' Mutual Insurance

If you watch the popular game show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" you are familiar with the infamous "hot seat." That is where the contestant sits while Regis fires off tough - and sometimes not-so-tough - questions.

Of course, those people choose to be in the "hot seat" because they want the chance to walk away with a cool million. The rest of us aren't as lucky in our day-to-day lives - especially those who have to deal with media and are responsible for promoting and protecting the image of our funds.

A public relations crisis will drop you in the hot seat quicker than you can say, "That's my final answer." And unlike the Millionaire show, you can't phone a friend or poll the audience for help.

So what do you do when the inevitable PR crisis hits? Here are some tips:

  • Have a plan. Every business assumes some level of risk and vulnerability merely as a function of providing goods or services to the public. As such, don't wait for bad news to happen: Plan for it. This roadmap will help you deal with the situation calmly and confidently at a time when tension is high.
  • When the crisis hits, the first rule is to think clearly, stay calm and keep others calm.
  • Appoint a spokesperson. One of your first decisions will be determining who will speak for the company. That person should be articulate and be able to communicate the company's message simply and succinctly (preferably in sound bites).
  • Make sure that your spokesperson has all the facts and is able to respond to media inquiries promptly. Hiding from the problem and ignoring phone calls can worsen the situation. The quicker you deal with it, the sooner it will start to become yesterday's news.
  • Communicate your message. Know the key points that you want to convey to the media. Make sure they are included in any statement that you issue. Ensure that your spokesperson reemphasizes these points when talking with the media.
  • Don't bury your head in the sand. You will only prolong the agony if you ignore the problem, deny the problem exists, lie about the problem, assign blame rather than focusing on fixing the problem, or clam up and let the media drag the story out over time.
  • When talking with the media, remember to:
    • Be friendly and respectful (they have a job to do, too)
    • Smile
    • Relax
    • Be calm
    • Avoid saying anything that you don't want printed or heard
    • Keep on message
    • Be specific
    • Be concise and stick to the facts
    • Listen to the question closely and know what is being asked before responding
    • Think about your response before speaking;
    • Consider the questions that may be asked by a reporter and how you might answer them
    • And try to get to know the members of the media before they show up at your office with cameras rolling and reporter notepads in hand.
  • Keep your employees informed. They shouldn't have to learn about the situation by reading the newspaper or watching the 6 o'clock news. Tell them everything that you plan to tell the media so that they clearly understand the company's position. Also instruct them to refer any media inquiry to the appropriate spokesperson.
  • Keep your customers informed. Don't let the situation - and the media - undermine your customers' confidence. Communicate with them directly and let them know the facts and what is being done to correct the problem.

Throughout history some of the biggest and best companies have faced public relations nightmares (for example, Johnson & Johnson's cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, the Exxon oil spill and, more recently, the faulty Firestone tires on Ford Explorers). Although we as state funds aren't likely to face a crisis of that magnitude, you have to plan for the worse and hope for the best. Being prepared is the key.

And though you won't become a millionaire in that hot seat, your company will come out a winner.

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