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A Crash Course in Crisis Communications

By Shreya Menon

During our Nov. 2 general meeting, Tery Hemeyer gave an entertaining lecture to Texas PRSSA members about crisis communication in the modern public relations industry. Hemeyer is an associate professor of practice at UT’s School of Advertising and Public Relations, specializing in crisis management and strategies. He is also a current member of the UT College of Communication Advisory Council and teaches corporate crisis management at Rice University for their MBA Program. He has extensive experience in crisis communications including managing crises for national, high-ranked brands, large corporations, and even U.S. presidents.

Hemeyer’s Top Ten Crisis Takeaways:

1. Be aware of your organization’s vulnerabilities and manage them.

Proactive crisis management is just as important as reactive crisis management. If you are cognizant of your company’s weaknesses, then you can proactively mitigate problems before they escalate.

2. Your employees are your biggest assets and your weakest links.

The majority of crises a company deals with come from employees within the organization. They can become liabilities for the company instead of valuable assets when they make ignorant mistakes. However, it is also important to include employees in the crisis management process to avoid making the same mistakes again.

3. No two crises are ever the same.

Although the overall issue may be similar (e.g. sexual harassment, racism, etc.), no two crises will ever be solved in the exact same way. Be ready for the unexpected and be flexible!

4. Every decision needs to pass the “60 Minutes” test.

What choices would you make if you knew your actions would be broadcast for the world to see on “60 Minutes”?

5. The best crisis management is quick and anonymous.

Avoid communicating to the public unless necessary. It is best to get in and out as fast as you can without broadcasting the issue to everyone.

6. Be transparent, but have the facts before you speak.

If you do not have all the information to accurately answer a question, admit your ignorance and do not create random facts. However, you should never say, “no comment,” because it makes you seem cold and detached. Instead, you can say you do not have all the facts to properly answer the question and will reach out when you have more information.

7. Remember that silence can be golden.

During a crisis, you cannot take back any statements you make. Be mindful of what is said, and if possible, keep quiet.

8. A calm, patient exterior is a key to putting your internal team and the public at ease and gaining their confidence.

No matter how nervous you may be, you should portray yourself as calm and collected to avoid hysteria among the company and the public. If you seem calm and patient, you will gain the trust of the public and will be able to solve the issue quicker.

9. Keep on trucking in all other areas of the business.

Assemble a team of the best people at your disposal to manage the crisis and encourage the business to continue as usual. Allowing the organization to go into gridlock can cause more harm than good.

10. Seek out the advice of a trusted “third party” during a crisis.

These kinds of people are removed enough from the situation to provide valuable, objective input. Finding people who are removed from the situation can help you manage the crisis in an unbiased way.

Along with sharing his vast knowledge from years of working in public relations and crisis management, Hemeyer provided us with a crisis communication activity. He gave us real-life scenarios and asked us to create solutions in a very limited timeframe. This exercise gave us a taste of what this industry is like: fast-paced, intense, and *slightly* stress-inducing.

Overall, Hemeyer’s hilarious anecdotes and informational lessons taught the members of PRSSA valuable lessons and helped us gain insight into our future careers.

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