Why speaking ‘human’ is key in a PR crisis

Volkwagon emission crisis

So the BBC’s Business Editor Kamal Ahmed has told the PR industry that it needs to pick up the pace. Speaking at the PRCA National Conference in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal which saw the car manufacturer apparently using technology to comply with US emissions regulations, Ahmed has stated that VW’s biggest error was forgetting to ‘speak human’.

He also mentioned that this is sadly the case with many PRs, as he if often on the receiving end of untailored, un-personalised, irrelevant emails.  Ahmed is not alone, as my article on ‘do’s and don’ts for PR’s’ revealed that the most common bugbear for journalists is receiving blanket emails that clearly will not work for their publication.

In times of crisis, it is all too common for organisations to go into damage control overload, and often this employs the saying ‘less is more’ mantra.  However, when dealing with consumer issues of interest to the general public, going quiet won’t make the issue go away.

An example of a crisis well-handled that is often cited as a textbook case study in reputation management, is Richard Branson’s interview in the wake of the Virgin Trains derailment in Cumbria.  A short excerpt is here.

Whilst overtaken with emotion, Branson managed to get his key points across, emphasising the rarity of the incident, even throwing in some statistics about how many passengers have safely travelled before the crash.  The facts of course help the instil public confidence, but what really helped manage the crisis was that Branson came across as human, and seemed genuinely moved by what happened.  By displaying empathy, as well as information, the public can regain their confidence in Virgin Trains.

Sadly, for this well-managed crisis, there are countless examples of when organisations have listened to the lawyers, but failed to translate this to address the needs – and questions – of the public.  The basic PR principles of reputation management – assess, inform, apologise and reassure, have gone out of the window with many brands, and they have never quite recovered from it.

So the key to managing a crisis for any organisation is a simple test.  Take into account all the legal advice, but then speak to someone you know outside of your industry – your mum, your neighbour or your friend. If you can explain the issue to them in terms they will understand, and answer any follow up questions they may have, you have a human-proof response to a crisis. And when you strip away all the jargon and corporate speak, ultimately that is what good PR is about, it is the ability to be human.

Halima Khatun

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