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Episode 13 – Best Practices in Managing a PR or Communications Crisis

Site Selectors Guild
Episode 13 - Best Practices in Managing a PR or Communications Crisis

Rick Weddle: Welcome to Site Selection Matters, where we take a close look at the art and science of site selection decision making specifically and economic development generally. I’m your host, Rick Weddle, president of Site Selectors Guild. In each episode, we introduce you to leaders in the world of corporate site selection and in economic development. We speak with members of the Site Selectors Guild, our economic development partners, and corporate decision makers to provide you with insight into the best and next practices in our profession.

In this episode, we have as our guest, Steve Stoler, director of Media Relations for the City of Plano, Texas, and a former veteran broadcast journalist. Today, Steve will talk with us about the importance of effectively handling public relations communications crises. Join me as we welcome Steve to Site Selection Matters.

Steve, in today’s 24/7 media environment, we hear a lot about PR, a lot about communications crises. Overall, when you wrap that together, what exactly does that mean?

Steve Stoler: Well, Rick, we came up with a definition here at the City of Plano and how we define a communications crisis is an unexpected or unwanted event or issue that threatens to harm our brand, our reputation, or our employees, our customers, clients, and other key audiences and stakeholders. It’s really any incident or situation that has the potential to negatively affect trust and/or confidence in your government or whatever the entity, whether it’s a business, a corporation, etc.

Rick: See, that could be, when you say any, when you always have any in a sentence, that could be a pretty wide range of things that could either be a crisis or lead to a crisis, couldn’t it?

Steve: Absolutely. And the thing that we try to do is anticipate possible crisis. You know, it may never come to fruition, but whenever we have a situation that we anticipate may be controversial, we always try and look at the situation and examine it and say, how could this turn out? And if it does turn out negatively and it does become a controversy or an issue in our community, what do we do to handle that? How do we get in front of it? How do we prepare ourselves to deal with the crisis? When it happens, you’re much better prepared to get through it in a successful way.

Rick: It’s probably one of those things you can’t get ready for after the crisis gets underway. So really, I guess the question would be, from a simple standpoint, what’s the best way to respond to a PR crisis when it happens?

Steve: Right. Well, the thing is you gotta be proactive. You know, we always say we are what we project. And when it comes to a crisis communication situation, you have to deal with it quickly and effectively because as you were just mentioning, the longer you wait, the more damage that’s going to be done to your reputation and your credibility. You know, all too often, we get caught in the middle of a crisis and people take their time in dealing with it. You know, and how you handle it can really affect how long the crisis lasts, which can really vary from a matter of hours to weeks or even months.

So, what we’ve done here in the City of Plano is we actually developed a PR crisis communications plan. And it’s working very effectively in handling these situations when they come up.

Rick: So really, if you don’t…your goal is to get ahead of it, I guess, because you don’t want it to go on and on and you be continuing to react to it. You want to be ahead of it.

Steve: Absolutely. But that’s not always the case because sometimes, when you discover that there is an issue out there, it’s already out there, especially when it’s on social media and it’s already spreading, and you know how fast things can go viral. So, then you have to go into the reactive mode. But the thing is, you gotta do it quickly. You gotta head it off as quickly as possible to try and limit any damage that can be done.

Rick: So how does this crisis communications plan work? And can you maybe just walk us through it real briefly?

Steve: Sure. Sure. So, the first thing we do, when we either discover or anticipate a crisis, is my role is media relations director, I’m notified along with the city manager, who really functions as the CEO of the city. We then assemble a crisis communications response team, and not too many people. It’s comprised of the city manager, the deputy city manager that’s over the department that might be affected by the crisis, the director of the department that’s at the center of that situation, myself. We have a communications director. We bring in the city attorney. And depending on the situation, if needed, we may bring in the human resources director. We may bring in the risk manager. And we also have a contracted external PR consultant, where if we need an outside opinion from an expert, we can bring that person in that we have on a retainer.

Rick: So, once you get this team together, which seems like it could be a pretty large team, depending on the nature of the issue, what happens next?

Steve: First thing we do is we discuss the situation and then we focus on what immediate steps must be taken. Who knows about the crisis? Has the media gotten a hold of it? Does it have traction? Who’s going to be affected by the crisis? What are people feeling? What are the emotions that need to be considered? What do we, as a city, need to do about it? If we have our city attorney in with us, we talk about legal concerns. What can we say? What can’t we say? How will our response be communicated? Is it something that we’ll put out a press release or we’ll hold a press conference, or we’ll deal with reporters as they call us individually? You know, what are we gonna do? Who will be contacted? How will we handle this response?

And one of the most important things, Rick, is coming up with effective messaging. And when we have one of these situations occur, we try to come up with two or three main messages. And these messages are what do we need and want to get out to our constituents? What is our most important messaging? And then when we’re interviewed by the media, what we do is we try to answer the questions as openly and honestly as possible that we legally can, but then we make a little bridge and we get those two or three messages out that we want to disseminate, the most important things. And it’s really easy when you’re being interviewed, just to do a little transition. And when you have that messaging, you’re passionate about it. And I find that, even as a former reporter myself for many years, I find that when you communicate something with passion behind it, that’s what the media is gonna use because they pick up on that passion. So, 9 out of 10 times, they’re going to use those messages that you’re attempting to get out.

Rick: Interesting. Very interesting. Couple of questions come to mind as I think through this process. You know, you’ve talked about a crisis, you’ve talked about the message. I’m assuming that when you put that team together, you don’t always agree on the nature of the crisis and that you might not always agree on what the key message would be. How do you work through that with your team?

Steve: I think the thing is, is when, you know, a lot of times, one person will have an idea how to handle it. And we try to be really open with each other and get everything out on the table and then decide as a group what’s going to be the most effective way. And sometimes, someone will offer something that’s completely out of the box that we haven’t even thought about yet it’s a very solid and important point. So really, we try to work as a team to come up with some consensus when we come up with these messages.

And in the few time, thank God, it’s only been a few times, but in the few times we’ve had to deal with these crises, everyone seems to be on the same page, right from the outset. And we get a lot of different opinions, but it’s a team, everyone’s working together. We all have the same goal, to protect the city and to try and protect our brand, try and protect our reputation. And at the same time trying to get out good, solid, honest, and open information about whatever the crisis may be.

Rick: Steve, you know, we’ve been talking theory, I guess, or strategy or pretty high level, 30,000-foot view here. For our listeners, could you maybe let’s make this come to life a little bit. Do you have an idea, but could you share an example or two of what you either have been working through as a crisis or could be working through as a crisis at a community level?

Steve: Sure, absolutely. We were approached by some concert promoters that wanted to put on what they called a pop-up concert, a music festival, over two days. And by pop-up what they meant is you don’t know who’s gonna be in the lineup until maybe a few days or a week or two before the actual festival. And they were playing around with some pretty big names. So, they wanted a venue. So, the city’s only role in this music festival was to provide them with some space at one of our very large parks and nature preserves to hold this two-day festival.

Well, we weren’t involved in any of the promotion or anything. We just had the contract to give them a space. In the contract, what we asked them to do is to give the city the final say on what acts were going to perform. And then once the city okayed the act, then they would pursue the contract with each individual performer. So, we were following who they were going to sign. And weeks before the concert, it was about maybe three weeks prior to the actual festival date, the city hadn’t received any indication at all from these promoters who was gonna perform. Tickets were starting to be sold. And it had all kinds of red flags. And we were wondering, along with the media, whether or not this thing was ever gonna get off the ground.

The media started comparing it with the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, which was very well publicized. The rapper Ja Rule organized this big music festival and it never came to fruition. They promised luxury all the way around. And when the people arrived, they found themselves in tents with cots on the beach, with cheese sandwiches in Styrofoam boxes. So, when the media started comparing this festival with Fyre, we thought, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a disaster.” And even though we’re only providing the venue, and that’s our only role, we knew that the community was going to blame the city because it’s perceived as Plano’s music festival, not this separate entity, this private contractor that just wants space. And then if it doesn’t happen and people have bought tickets, are they gonna get their money back? And that’s still up to the promoter, but who they gonna call? If they can’t get the promoter, they’re gonna start calling the city.

So, I called the city manager and I said, “You know, this might be a perfect opportunity for us to implement our crisis communications plan here for PR crisis.” And he said, “Let’s do it.” So, we assembled the deputy city manager that’s over Parks and Recreation, the director of Parks and Recreation, the city attorney. We had me, the communications director, the city manager. We all met either in an office or on a conference call and we discussed all the potential things that could go wrong. And finally, the bottom line was, can we get out of this, because this isn’t gonna happen and we’re gonna really take a hit in terms of public relations. And city attorney said, “They haven’t followed the contract. So yes, we can terminate the contract.” So, we decided to do that.

We put out a media advisory, telling the media that the city had terminated the contract and that if they wanted… We told the promoters that we were gonna do that. They understood. And we also told them that we were gonna refer the media to them, not to us, that our statement spoke for itself. Well, that happened. Everything came to fruition. And within two days, the city was completely out of the equation. And the media was still talking about whether or not this would happen somewhere else, but the focus was on the promoters and their failure. And like I said, the city was completely out of it.

So, by doing what we did and by making a quick decision and an effective decision, we took ourselves out of the potential for having a communications crisis before it got way out of hand.

Rick: It seems like the key word there that you mentioned earlier in our conversation was anticipate. And it looks like that was a good example of you anticipated a problem. It looked like it was probably gonna be a train coming down the track at you.

Steve: Right. Absolutely.

Rick: You anticipated it. You assessed the impact, and you could develop a very reasonable, rational response and disseminated the messages that you wanted to really cover and manage in that. Let me ask you this, you mentioned…and you use the word team a number of times, and I know from reading your background, you used to be in broadcast journalism for a number of years. Two questions, one, do you really ever just practice this? Does your team practice when there’s not a crisis? And secondly, what’s the role you play? Are you kind of the coach?

Steve: Yeah. And I think the reason why I am kind of a coach; I do what we call media training and I was in the media for 34 years. And in that period of time, I saw a lot of things happen. I like to say that I don’t know much about anything, but I understand and know how the media works because my whole adult life, that’s all I’ve been doing. I’ve only been doing this job, doing media relations from the other side for six years. So really my background is the media. I was the reporter asking the questions.

So, what I try to do… We do do training. And what we do is we come up with scenarios, and they’re real-life scenarios that have happened in other cities across the country. I do some research beforehand so that they are real-life scenarios. And what we do is we’ll have an executive meeting. We’ll bring in all the directors of all the departments, we’ll break up into different groups. And each group has a different crisis to deal with. And what they have to do is they have to come up with two or three different messages that they wanna get out. And then at the very end, once they’re ready — we give them about 20 minutes, so they have to react quickly — each group appoints a spokesperson to have a press conference. And there’s another panel in the room that acts as the reporters who are asking the questions during the press conference. And it gives them some experience so that if, you know, if this ever does really happen, they feel like they have a little bit of experience and they know a little bit of how to react. And it’s been really helpful.

Rick: Outstanding. Yeah, it seems…I mean, a clear strategy, effective execution, good training plan, lots of practice, and a coach that kind of keeps all the team members aligned around it. It gives you, at least, a higher-than-average chance of a successful outcome.

Steve: I think so. I think so.

Rick: Clearly, Steve, you’ve given us a lot to think about today. I would say, without a doubt, City of Plano has a plan that should be considered best practice, maybe even the national standard in my experience for community or city responses to communications and public relations crisis. What a great conversation we’ve had today, we could go on and on and on, but that’s all the time we have. So, let me say thanks to Steve Stoler for talking with us today on this episode of ”Site Selection Matters.”

Steve: Thank you, Rick. I appreciate you having me on.

Rick: Thanks for listening to this episode of Site Selection Matters and a special thanks to Steve Stoler, Media Relations director for the City of Plano, Texas, and for helping us to get inside and better understand how to effectively handle a public relations communications crisis. What an informative discussion we’ve had today.

Again, I’m Rick Weddle, president of the Site Selectors Guild. We hope you’ll subscribe to the Site Selection Matters podcast on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcast. We look forward to bringing you some great discussions in the year ahead. Until next time, good day.