No comment, no control

Work in corporate PR for long enough and you’ll almost certainly have the opportunity to work on a large corporate retainer for a well-known international business or national household brand. Such accounts are highly sought after, not just for the reputational boost they can give the agency in a specific sector, but also because they give individuals the opportunity to advise a client on a wide range of areas – from Board or Group level communications down to the individual issues on a factory floor.

These companies are, however, also bigger targets for the media. The mantra goes that bad news sells and in a world of high level investigative journalism, hacking and social media, even the smallest issues are quickly amplified and pushed into the public eye in spectacular fashion. People want to read about a scandal at a recognisable company as much as they want to read about the latest celebrity meltdown.

In all of this, speed is the critical factor and the biggest agent against truth and fact. Social media, for all its good, has also become a catalyst for exaggerating rumour and quickly circulating speculation masked as informed opinion to a wide audience. Companies and their PR advisers have less and less time to act, to respond, to comment and more and more pressure do so effectively and responsibly with full transparency.

In a recent study, Freshfields Bruckhaud Deringer, the international law firm conducted research based on extensive in-depth interviews with senior communications professionals responsible for advising some of the world’s largest blue chip organisations. The findings showed that in the case of more than a quarter of crises news spread internationally within one hour and 75% spread internationally within 24 hours. Evidence of an issue was present for days, sometimes months in advance in almost 60% of crises, and the research revealed it took an average of 21 hours for companies to respond, leaving them open to a ‘trial by twitter’ which inevitably stokes the comment fire for the media.

Journalists want the whole picture, which includes the view of the company at the centre of a story. However, they also want to be first. Unfortunately, the greater debate over what long term effect this has on the integrity of news is not something we as PR advisers can adequately influence in the short term. Instead, our job must be to ensure that our clients can rely on us to provide the right advice and respond effectively and quickly in order to minimise the potential damage a particular issue may cause to their reputation and operation. Further, to ensure that journalists can rely on us to respond promptly and clearly.

A company’s reaction to a crisis / issue / incident can often define its future, as much as the counsel and recommendations provided by its PR firm can determine the longevity and success of our relationship.

Written by James Madsen, Director

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