How to avert a PR crisis

Adrian WarrAdrian Warr recently joined Edelman Hong Kong from Portland in London to head up the PR agency’s corporate communications practice. 

In this interview, Warr tells Robin Hicks, Mumbrella Asia’s editor, how brands should respond to a PR crisis.

What’s the toughest PR headache you have ever faced, and how did you tackle it?

If I told you that, it would undo all the hard work it took to bury it! A crisis manager never tells.

I will say this. I have had to deal with everything from assaults to product recalls to inappropriate office pranks to sex scandals. But the issue that I have seen people get most enraged about is their pets. Never get on the wrong side of dog lovers.

As a PR agency, frankly, sometimes you are asked to lie on behalf of your client. How far is it acceptable to stretch the truth?

You can’t lie. Nobody wins if you lie, and you will get caught. If a client asked me to lie – and it hasn’t happened yet – I’d refuse and find another way.

What’s the first thing that crosses your mind when a negative story breaks in the press about one of your clients?

There goes my weekend! But honestly it really depends on the issue and the business and it’s different every time.

I always feel sympathy for my client though. They are usually good people who are genuinely proud of their brand. Nobody likes to see their company criticized.

On the flip side, sometimes it’s a great story and you can’t help but doff your cap to the journalist, especially if she or he is a friend.

Generally, you switch into autopilot. You immediately start predicting the worst case scenarios, working out what you need to know, who you need to talk to and how you can respond.

If you had to choose between a relationship with a journalist and a relationship with a client when the proverbial hits the fan, does the client always win?

The balancing act of managing both sides is the nature of PR, and the people who do this job well never have to choose.

In a good client relationship, you are partners. And if you have a good relationship with a journalist, they will understand your position.

But if things go really wrong and you absolutely have to choose, the client always comes first.

What’s the best example you can think of that showed how best to deal with a potential PR disaster?

The best examples are the ones you never see, the ones that are headed off at the pass by being prepared before the proverbial hits the fan.

I once worked with a major food company that was, as with most of its peers at the time, using an allegedly unsustainable ingredient in its products. We got wind they were about to be attacked by Greenpeace and it was going to be a fully integrated, very public campaign, singling out our client and a competing food manufacturer.

Because we had worked to develop relationships with a variety of NGOs and we had planned for the issue and taken steps to mitigate our use of the ingredient and change policy, we were able to meet with Greenpeace and ultimately get them to cancel the campaign against us. Our competitor was not spared and consequently got it with both barrels.

What’s the best example you can think of that showed how never to deal with a potential PR disaster?

Protests against BP after oil spill. Pic: AP

Protests against BP after oil spill. Pic: AP

Many would say the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But I disagree. There were things that could have been done better, and there were outright mistakes. But the real issue was massive amounts of oil coming out of the ground causing substantial environmental damage – no amount of communication was going to stop that.

The way the majority of banks reacted to the global financial crisis breaks all my rules for good crisis management. For the most part, they battened down the hatches and refused to engage and show that they were genuinely listening, learning and changing.

You might argue that it hasn’t mattered; for most, business is brisk again. But while the dust may have settled for now, the loss of consumer and governmental trust will come back to haunt them. Moreover, an opportunity to reinvent and lead was lost.

Who’s the best person you’ve ever met at dealing with a PR crisis and why?

Alastair Campbell [Tony Blair’s former spin doctor]. No matter where you stand politically, you can’t help but admire him as a communicator.

Watch Campbell attack the British newspaper The Daily Mail earlier this month for representing “The worst of British values posing as the best”:

This is a guy who handled terrorist attacks, the Northern Ireland peace process and the Iraq war to name but a few. The scale of these issues and the intensity of public and media attention are impossible for most of us to imagine.

He has the ability to calmly focus on a clear and consistent strategy in the face of a phenomenally complex web of influencers, in extremely hostile circumstances. Read his books and you’ll see what I mean.

What qualities do you need as an individual to be a great PR person in a crisis situation?

You need to think quickly. You have to exude confidence and calm. You need to have an intimate understanding of media and stakeholders. You have to be able to speak truth to power. You need to be a master of rapidly cutting through vast swathes of complex data to find the simple, central question. And you need to thrive under stress.


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