CPA INSIDER

How to respond to a PR crisis

Planning ahead can keep bad news from getting worse.
By Lee Montgomery

Making a mistake when presenting bad news to the public can make a bad situation worse.

A CPA firm needs to be clear and concise with its procedures and methods when presenting any such news to avoid misinterpretations. Avoiding those errors takes a simple, methodical approach, according to public relations experts and CPAs.

Here are a few simple steps to help keep your response to bad news from turning into a public relations problem:

Have a plan in place: CPA firms should have a crisis communications plan in place long before issues arise. Ensure that everyone knows who speaks on behalf of the firm beforehand. The emotional tensions of crises can often cloud thinking, but knowing what to do in advance of any issues can help.

"Every business, no matter what it does, needs a crisis PR plan that lays out all possible scenarios of various crises and what the solution would be to hopefully resolve any situation," said Scott H. Cytron, president of Cytron and Company, a PR firm that works with CPAs. "Think in terms of CEO death, ID theft, data loss, and natural and man-made disasters. Keep the plan current and always share it with all employees." [Editor's note: In the case of CPA firms, which generally don't have traditional CEOs, the sudden death of a managing partner would probably qualify as a crisis communication situation.]

Let the professionals handle it: CPAs are experts in the field of finance and accounting, but not always in public relations. For that reason, CPAs should let experts in communication advise them when problems arise. Many firms have their own in-house communications and public relations teams, so it is best to defer to them.

"I believe that communications, PR, and crisis communications experts, not CPAs, should handle PR crises," Sandi Leyva, CPA, whose firm is based in Texas, said. "CPAs might have a place on the team to help explain complicated financial results, but they are not generally communications or crisis management experts."

If you don't have a staff communications team, outside public relations experts should be involved from the start of any issue to offer guidance on how best to proceed. PR is not an exact science, of course, but allowing experts to be part of the response should help thwart bigger problems. 

Select – and prep – the right internal experts: PR professionals are only part of the answer. Part of the guidance you need may already be in-house; don't forget to loop internal teams into your communications plan – and help them prepare for any communications they may need to make.

"Often, what I've seen happen is someone who is not schooled in how to answer questions speaks extemporaneously — and puts their foot in their mouth unintentionally," said marketing communications expert Sally Glick, principal and chief growth strategist at Sobel & Co. "It's not that you're spinning a story or trying to hide anything, but it's simply, are you saying the right things in the right way so they're not misinterpreted?"

Stay out front: Being too slow in reacting to a PR problem can bring its own set of issues. Companies that take too long in responding to issues are often vilified in the marketplace. Don't let that happen to you.

"It's better to be honest and upfront rather than wait for 60 Minutes to knock on your door," Cytron said. "Some of the worst PR disasters in history occurred because the company or organization did not acknowledge any wrongdoing until it was too late."

"Remember, too, that everyone loves a redemption story, so if there's any way to get ahead of a problem, go for it."

Manage communications: Once the news is made public, PR firms can monitor the reaction to bad news and react accordingly. As the story unfolds, public reactions and attitudes can change. Protecting yourself requires seeing and understanding those shifts. How you need to respond may be different on Friday than it was on Monday. A savvy PR firm should be able to manage any further response based on the current situation.

How you respond also differs depending on where you respond. Turn to your in-house communications staff or outside PR firm to craft strategies for broadcast, print, and social media, keeping in mind that these channels all require constant monitoring.

"The PR firm might also manage any communication channels for the client," Leyva said. "For example, in social media, company representatives would listen or watch for mentions of keywords related to the company or the incident and respond based on templates or guidelines."

Paying attention to how the story evolves over time, not just as news breaks, can empower firms to influence and respond to the public narrative as it unfolds.

Lee Montgomery is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director, content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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