It’s Handled – PR Hero Judy Smith on Crisis Management

If you are attending the upcoming PRSSA National Conference in October, you might have seen the name Judy Smith floating around in the promo emails or in the program brochure as one of the conference speakers. Even though I will not be attending (my bank account laughed at me for even considering it), I am positive that Judy will be imparting some golden gems on crisis management. I mean, she is so experienced in this area that her life has inspired a hit Shonda-Rhimes-produced television show!

In case you didn’t know, I am referring to Scandal (airing Thursday nights at 9:00pm #TGIT), where its lead character, Olivia Pope, portrayed impeccably by Kerry Washington, serves as an in demand “fixer” for public figures when they are dealt with potentially career-ending PR crises. The show is loosely based on Judy Smith’s experiences, as she served as a crisis consultant for high profile clients, ranging from President George H.W. Bush to former White House intern Monica Lewinski and NFL quarterback Michael Vick.

Here are some lessons on crisis management from Judy herself, complemented with direct quotes:

1. Always tell the truth.

“I will say this about the truth, that it’s one of those crisis rules, whether you are a client or someone who’s living their life just every day, is that the truth has a funny way of not going away, and telling the truth is extremely important in dealing with any problem or crisis.”

In today’s digital age, it is so easy to find out if your client is lying. Make sure that as much as you want to frame the story to your client’s advantage, you do not want them to get caught lying – especially in the middle of a crisis. Honesty is key!

2. Be prepared.

“Know your industry’s weaknesses. Certain crises are likely to happen in given industries–like recalls for consumer products. Prepare an advanced game plan and a solid execution strategy for these potential mishaps.”

Keeping an updated communications plan for predicted crises, just in case, is always a good idea. That way, you are not caught by surprise if something goes wrong, and won’t have to scramble to put together a strategy when your client is expected to respond within 24 hours. Instead, you can just make a phone call and say “send the drafted tweets from crisis 4(d)(ii) section 3!”

3. Own the crisis.

“You want to get out there and, as they say, you want to correct anything very quickly that’s wrong. But at the same time, I think that you have to balance it and you want to make sure that you have the facts. It’s one of those things, you can’t put the genie back in a bottle once it’s out. So you just have to try to mitigate it and try to get your side of the facts out quickly.”

When a client is hit with a crisis, you would want them to own the narrative and respond swiftly. Having the 24-hour news media digest, speculate and discuss the issue extensively and create rumors of their own will not be beneficial. Make sure that you are on top of the problem, take it into your own hands and make the narrative what you want it to be. That’s what a gladiator would do!

This blog post was written by Account Associate Hao Yi Kok. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @haoyikok. 

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