Anyone who has worked in public relations for any significant length of time has had to deal with a difficult client at some point. Perhaps you had the client who didn’t understand why you can’t just call a press conference for no reason. Maybe you had the client who wants to be the spokesperson for their new anti-aging cream – and they obviously look like they need to use it. On the other hand, maybe you represented a client who found himself or herself in the hot seat because of some scandal.
There are many sources and opinions out there on how to handle a crisis, but it seems that most of these focus on the corporate environment such as this article from Bernstein Crisis Management. Where is the advice for helping individuals, the average Joes, who find themselves in the middle of a media firestorm?
This week, a former student of mine made headlines as the new teacher who posed for Playboy in college. She was 18 at the time and now, as a 21-year-old first year Spanish teacher, it seems her career is already over after just five weeks even though what she did was legal and occurred almost three years prior to her employment. Fresh out of college with no PR firm or attorney to represent her, it seems she has no one to turn to for crisis management.
All of this got me thinking about public relations for regular people. As industry professionals, we constantly examine crisis management case studies in business, nonprofits and the occasional public figure. Where is the advice for the average Joe who suddenly finds themselves thrust into the spotlight? Most people have no media training and no idea how journalists think so they don’t know how to react. Then I came across this article from Epic PR and it gave me some inspiration.
- Don’t make excuses. If you know what you did was questionable then own up to it. Take responsibility for your actions without saying anything incriminating. This is not the same as admitting guilt. In a situation like with this teacher where the truth is unavoidable, there is no point in denying it. Just acknowledge it with a bit of contriteness, sincerity and understanding.
- Be proactive. If you can’t stop the negative attention, take the wind out of their sails a bit by eliminating the need for reporters to dig for the truth. This means that you should develop a short, honest, thoughtful statement for the media that will hopefully diffuse their need to dig into your personal life. The last thing you need is for people with strong research skills exposing or exploiting every detail of your life that they think is relevant. When they call you at home or confront you in a parking lot, a thoughtfully prepared answer is better than “no comment.”
- Make social media work for you. You may not have a PR team at your disposal, but you can be your own advocate. In situations like this, reporters love to dig into social media for clues so use it to present your side of the story, clear up any misconceptions, and protect your image. Start with Twitter, then Facebook, because these will help you keep it brief. If the situation is more complicated or requires a longer response, try blogging a brief statement or make a short video (keep it between 1-3 minutes). Notice I keep saying brief. Seriously – less is more. Today’s reporters LOVE using a tweet or post in their reports and sound bites are the norm. Just remember than anything you say “can and will be used against you” in the court of public opinion – and the HR office or unemployment line.
- Wait for it to blow over. Now that you’ve done what you can to minimize the media frenzy, it’s time to lay low and keep your mouth shut. Don’t post anything else to social media. You’ve said what needs to be said, so now you are on radio silence. Don’t respond to comments below the online story or get into arguments with Internet trolls. Be cautious about text messages and stay out of the public eye for a while.
- Accept the inevitable. Like my former student above, you probably won’t be able to save your job even if you didn’t break any laws or rules. Accept it and move on. It may not be fair (hell, it probably isn’t) but don’t let it consume you or make you bitter. Use this as an opportunity to explore your options, strengthen personal relationships and focus on your future.
Just because you made the news today does NOT mean your life is over! Handle the situation with as much dignity, grace and class as you can manage and don’t let your emotions (especially anger) get the best of you. It may be embarrassing and it may cost you your job, but you don’t want to add fuel to the fire by running your mouth or making it worse. You can overcome this and may even come out better on the other side.