There are times when acknowledging the elephant in the room is the hardest part, perhaps even more difficult than actually doing something about the creature. That is why the field of public relations is so important; someone has to deliver the tough-to-swallow pill.
Well, how exactly do we treat such delicate situations with the deft combination of tact and integrity? PRSA, Boston member Nancy Sterling APR, Fellow PRSA and Diane Davis Beacon Award Winner, has a lot to say on the subject. With years of experience working in the field of crisis communication, she carries with her a wealth of knowledge that only a seasoned veteran could have. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview her for this article to get some insight.
Q: Are there any general rules-of-thumb when it comes to crisis communication?
A: Every situation is different, but there are some basic mandates for crisis communication. You normally advise clients to say something even if it’s something not very detailed, but you never want to say “no comment.”
Q: When is the best time to say something?
A: In a 24-hour news cycle, you don’t really have a lot of time. Often, you need to give a holding statement, such as “we don’t have a lot of information” or alternatively, “we don’t know all the details right now.” You need to be as ready as possible to respond when the media contacts you.
Q: Is there ever a time you shouldn’t say something?
A: Those times are the anomaly, not the norm. Examples would be if you know that an organization or individual is going to be indicted, or if you are concerned about the ramifications of any comment.
Q: Who should relay these messages?
A: Generally, you use someone who is an expert in the field to communicate crises. Top leadership is only used in really significant situations.
Q: Where do you release these messages?
A: We usually do a written statement and send it to media outlets that have already contacted us about the story.
Q: What was the most challenging situation you had to speak on?
A: When Nancy Kerrigan’s brother killed her father, I represented Nancy and her family.
Q: Is there ever a time in crisis communications that you make “positive” statements?
A: Yes! You might have good news as part of a crisis; for example, there might have been a building explosion but no deaths, only minor injuries.
Q: What is the best part of working in crisis communications?
A: I love my job. Work is different every day, and you’re always learning new things.
By now it should be obvious that the world of PR is complex and nuanced. Every situation requires a unique approach. Learning to navigate them is a skill that we could spend our whole lives learning and striving to perfect.
To end, I’d like to throw my own hat in the ring and dare say that it’s always better to say it than to be sorry, and my interview with Ms. Sterling reinforced that. I believe in that age-old adage of honesty being the best policy, no matter how difficult it is, so that in a world permeated by mirages of reality, we can find our own glimmer of trut
Written by Janet Annika Sison, Faculty Forum Student Correspondent – Boston College.