Prepare for a crisis…especially when you're not expecting one: PR Lessons from Women in Tech Week

Authors: Melanie Ewan and Melissa Ariganello

By their very nature, crisis' are difficult, if not impossible, to predict. Save for those purposely launching a controversial campaign (looking at you Pepsi), most marketers start their day on the assumption that they will not have to run unexpected interference or perform emergency CPR on their company.

Case in point: when Melanie and I joined Women in Tech Week (WinTech) as Co-Chairs of Communications, the possibility of a PR crisis was the last thing on either of our minds. WinTech is a Canadian non-profit that exists to celebrate and support women in technology—it is non-partisan and promotes inclusivity. Not your typical target for negative publicity. While our team was aware that the political climate was heating up around diversity and tech, none of us anticipated that WinTech would end up in a micro-crisis that would affect our event and brand.

The nitty gritty details aren’t important--it involved politics…and not Canada’s (quelle surprise!). What’s important is that, when it happened, we knew that we had to react quickly, regardless of how stunned we both felt. We weren’t sure how quickly the crisis might escalate or how damaging it could be, but given the political climate and nature of social media, we weren’t going to take any chances.                                          

How we handled the crisis we never planned for

  • First, we spoke with key stakeholders in the group to figure out a solution before we published any type of communication. While the immediate impulse is to respond immediately, it is crucial to understand the situation—who is involved, what is their relationship to the organization, and what are the facts. It was important for us to sit down and discuss the matter with key stakeholders (e.g., relevant members of board) and agree on a strategy.
  • We selected the appropriate channels to publish a statement on. We knew that we had to provide crisis communication it in a timely manner– but to which audience? We initially discussed dissemination through our blog, newsletter, press release and/or social channels, but in the end opted to publish with our social channels (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook). We did this for three reasons, (1) this is where the crisis was occurring (namely, through Twitter), (2) it ensured efficient access to the appropriate audience, and (3) it was the best platform to keep our message simple and to the point.
  • We made sure to avoid mentioning the parties involved and details of the crisis. In less than 24 hours, a decision was made and a few statements were drafted. We employed the tactic of acknowledge and diffuse: we acknowledged the situation by stating that we were aware of “recent reports”, but didn’t mention any involved parties or media outlets, and we utilized non-emotional language to state the facts (rather than our opinions).
  • We kept positive and reiterated our purpose. We found the best way to handle the situation was to change the conversation by taking the opportunity to restate the purpose of Women in Tech Week. We took care to include our mission and values in our statement, which helped to diffuse the crisis and re-focus on what matters the most--our efforts to celebrate women in tech. 

Lesson Learned

You can never predict a crisis, but you can be prepared for it. Instead of scrambling to figure out what you will communicate when the time comes, define a plan in advance. This way, if you ever find yourself in a sticky situation, you will already have the basis for tools in place for crisis communications. Here are our suggestions for preparing for a PR crisis:

  • Outline your key stakeholders – people who should be contacted and consulted when a crisis hits.
  • Assess the damage. Who is causing the damage, who or what might it affect, and how big of an issue is this?
  • What are your key tactics and goals in a PR crisis? Ours was to acknowledge and diffuse within 24 hours, but this may not work for you. Figure out what makes sense for your company, including the timeframe you intend to respond within.
  • Figure out your missions, values, and key messaging for a PR crisis.
  • Revamp your communications plan to include all of the above.

Truth is, most issues that we deem to be ‘crisis’ situations, are a lot bigger and scarier to those within the company than to their audience. People forgive and forget quicker than you’d imagine, especially if you’re honest, transparent, and acknowledge the situation. 

What are your top tips for handing a PR crisis?

Melissa Ariganello