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When the PR Crisis Hits, Will You Be Ready?

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During the 2008 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton aired a TV ad of a phone ringing at 3 a.m. in the morning, and the announcer asking whether the next president would be "ready" when the crisis call comes.

More and more these days, PR staffs should be asking themselves the same question. Will they be "ready" when the phone rings at 3 a.m.?

Few can predict the substance of the next crisis but it is not hard to organize the process to be ready to handle it.

First step in the crisis management plan: organizing the team. Who in your agency or department will be key to handling it? Who else gets those phone calls? Do you know who will handle legal? Or graphics if needed? If it involves government relations, is that person or group on the list---and do they know it?

In most crisis situations events or charges come fast but facts come slowly. What is your first line of defense? Who is the public spokesperson? What steps can you take to buy time while you are assessing the factual situation? Who in the organization needs to be contacted so that he or she won't be taken by surprise? Do all executives know that they should not be delivering offhand remarks? Do they know where to channel information?

While facts and full response are being assembled, what is the plan for avoiding charges of stonewalling? How do you plan to convey transparency so that media and other interested parties know the organization is making an honest effort to understand and deal with the situation?

Don't neglect the social media channels. These are not moderated or mediated. Outrageous remarks or presumed or misunderstood facts can take on lives of their own. Who is designated to be on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube to monitor what is being said and shown-with authority and resources to step in immediately to correct errors or tamp down concerns?

And after the immediate crisis has been dealt with, what is the plan for reestablishing credibility with stakeholders, the media and the public? Who manages that effort? What steps do they take quickly to keep damage from festering?

Examples abound of crisis situations handled well and badly. These should be studied with lessons learned. You can't predict the substance of the crisis. But you can organize, in advance, the mechanism for dealing with it. And you can count on this: someday that phone will ring at 3 a.m.

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