YouTube Shooting Prompts Increased Need for Crisis Communication Experts

The recent tragic shooting at the Silicon Valley headquarters of Google-owned YouTube has highlighted the security risks of open corporate campuses. As a result, several corporations are increasing their workplace safety measures, such as engaging armed guard services, sending employees to self-defense classes, and even installing designated safe rooms in offices. In addition, a thorough review of companies' crisis communication plans has many hiring managers seeking out skilled public relations professionals with experience handling emergency situations.

A Growing Problem

According to F.B.I. files, 160 "active-shooter incidents" took place in the United States between 2000 and 2013, leaving 486 people dead and 557 wounded. Nearly half of those attacks took place in commercial locations. Numerous other attacks have occurred in the past five years.

Unfortunately, crises are a sad reality in today's world and they must be anticipated as such. And, while some crises like the YouTube shooting can certainly be horrifying, every one can be managed from a public relations (PR) perspective. For the purpose of this blog, we are defining a crisis as "any event or circumstance that negatively impacts an organization's or individual's reputation, credibility, or brand."

RELATED: Crises on Campuses Call for Better Communication Between Key Leaders

The PR Practitioner's Role

PR practitioners' role in a crisis is critical and multi-layered. One of their chief concerns will be providing wise counsel to the CEO with regard to the organization's public response. They must consider the appropriateness of the information to be disseminated during and immediately after the crisis. Share too little, and they may raise suspicions; divulge too much, and they could raise liability issues for their company.

There are three basic rules of crisis communication:

  1. Have a Plan – Create a detailed contingency / scenario plan that outlines every conceivable crisis and appropriate response. Such plans are time-consuming and painful –which is why many organizations don't create them. Nonetheless, when facing a crisis, these plans actually save critical time, resources, and possibly even lives. Smart business is having an action plan in place that can be quickly implemented by every member of the executive, communications, and operations teams in a crisis. Many insurance companies are now even offering lower premiums to businesses that have a plan in place!
  2. The Need for Speed – It's essential to acknowledge crisis situations immediately. They may not have all of the details for days (or weeks!) but a prompt statement to the media and key publics, such as stakeholders, will both reduce speculation and rumor and also let those constituencies know they are in firm control of the situation.
  3. Be Transparent – Subterfuge and lies can destroy organizations. All one has to do is review the case studies of disasters like the BP oil spill in the Gulf or the VW emissions debacle. These and other cases provide excellent lessons in PR 101 - be up front, take responsibility, and tell the truth. There's a reason that nearly all effective communications programs include courses on ethics: bad behavior will eventually find its way to the top of the news feed.

One should never make assumptions or blanket statements, or play the blame game. And remember: while telling the truth is imperative, you do not have to publicly assume responsibility for a crisis if there is question about culpability.

It goes without saying that it is never acceptable to utter, "No comment." This response implies guilt, hubris, fear, and a lack of accountability. Want to fan the flames with the media and your key publics in the midst of a firestorm? Say "no comment."

The Company's Compass

As the "ethical compass" of the organization, PR practitioners' own standards of ethics, quality, accountability, integrity, and professionalism must be impeccable. In the middle of a crisis, these professionals often form the organization's official response. This may include speechwriting for the executive team, organizing news conferences, preparing media responses, reassuring internal and external audiences, and consulting with the company's leaders.

For these reasons, today's PR professionals must develop superior leadership skills, as everyone will seek them out for advice, direction, and expert guidance. Many individuals choose to learn this essential knowledge and skill set by obtaining master's degrees in mass communications. Understanding the effects of mass media and emerging social channels have on society and organizations is key to effectively managing crises in the future.

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