Crisis PR: How “Bizarre.”

[Jason’s note: I’m thrilled that Jessica Lawlor is providing this guest blog.  She is a senior public relations major at Temple University, graduating in May. She is the president of Temple’s PRSSA chapter. Jessica is currently searching for public relations positions in Philadelphia and New York City. Connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn or check out her Web site.]

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a wonderful and informative public relations event in Philadelphia. Drexel University’s PRSSA chapter was selected by PRSSA National to host a regional activity called Bizarre PR.

credit: Philly.com

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was about crisis PR. The session was led by Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Chief Press Officer, Jerri Williams. For those familiar with Philadelphia, SEPTA is our form of public transportation whose trains, subways and buses serve more than one million commuters a day.

Crisis PR is something that Jerri Williams deals with on a regular basis. In November 2009, three crises struck in the same week.

November 2, 2009: At 3:00 a.m. SEPTA’s union went on strike leaving several commuters frustrated that day when they left for work. The strike lasted six days.

November 4, 2009: A major fire broke out on SEPTA’s regional rail, the only form of transportation not disrupted by the strike.

November 5, 2009: A SEPTA employee was killed by a train.

Wow! What a bad week for SEPTA…Jerri Williams outlined her tips for dealing with crises.

  • Never underestimate a crisis
  • The media will show up before you…be ready for them
  • The media will cover the story with or without your input
  • Not responding does not mean the media will go away
  • The media always needs a good guy and a bad guy. Know who these “people’ are before speaking with the media.
  • Be patient with reporters.

Williams also introduced us to the art of putting together a press statement. She suggested using a press statement when your company does not want to elaborate or entertain questions. She described it as a tool to use, “when you really can’t say anything.” Williams said that it’s important to display empathy, be sure to say that you’re determined to make things right and share the concern of the public and the media.

In addition to sharing her crisis PR tips, Williams told us about four fatal fiascos when communicating during a crisis.

1. Saying “no comment.”

2. Lying

3. Losing your temper

4. Losing eye contact

Have you ever dealt with a PR crisis? How did you handle it? What are your crisis PR tips?

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About JasMollica

"It's never too late to have a life and it's never too late to change one." That's something I tell students, friends, and family all the time. After living and working in New York City, I took my own advice in 2004, switched my career from the television/radio industry and got into public relations. Now, I spend my days as a PR/social media marketing consultant and get inspired daily. It's been a good ride, so far. But the car has plenty of gas left. I hope you'll join along in this guy's journey!

Posted on April 15, 2010, in Hot Topic, Media, Public Relations, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This is an excellent guest post, Jason. Great job Jess! I love how you tell a story.

    I’ve never dealt with a crisis comm. situation. However I think I’ve learned a lot from the resources provided to us on Twitter as well through this post.

    Completely agree about saying “no comment” it’s like a death sentence!

    I think it’s also interesting that losing eye contact is one of the many features body language experts pick on. When someone’s lying, you can read them through their body language – just another reason not to lie.

    Awesome post!

  2. Hey Jess & Jason,

    Great post, Jess! Her session was my favorite, too. Coincidentally, they had ANOTHER crisis just the other night when someone died on one of the buses. (They just can’t get a break!) I learned yesterday at “Meet the Media” with PRSANJ that “no comment” is the green light to push further and find out whatever it is that person doesn’t want you to know.

    I’m sure many people will be able to learn from the points you highlighted. Great job!

  3. Hey guys! Great post, Jess!

    I’ve thankfully never dealt with a PR crisis but appreciate the insider info from firsthand experience of a pretty extreme example of a crisis! Knowing that the media will cover a story with or without help should be the number one motivator of all PR folk to become fully involved in crises ASAP.

    I also truly enjoy the common sense side of communications because sometimes people (myself included) seem to overlook the obvious, making common sense not all that common haha. “No comments”, lies, temper flares and sketchy behavior obviously aren’t going to remedy any situation, no matter the magnitude.

    A great, concise post that provides a few great lessons. Thanks again!

    Josh M.

    • Thanks to everyone for their comments. I think the one important thing to remember in a crisis as a PR person is to use patience. Not just with reporters, but with colleagues and yourself. Think about the actions that could affect how you and, most importantly, the company will be perceived.

  4. Just checked in and saw all the comments! Thank you for all putting your two cents in! Josh, you’re so right about the whole common sense thing- it’s something I myself have definitely overlooked before!

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