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Friday 16 November 2018
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Why Your HR Department Shouldn’t Handle Crisis Communications, But Your PR Team Should

Why Your HR Department Shouldn’t Handle Crisis Communications, But Your PR Team Should

By Amy Power | The Power Group

In my 15 years of experience handling crisis communication for clients, I’ve identified the two things underlying every successful response plan: listening and providing a genuine action that matches the incident. I’m now compelled to add a third: allowing the public relations team to lead the effort.

When a crisis erupts, a leader’s natural inclination is to rally the troops to mitigate the risk. However, although a crisis doesn’t start out as a legal issue or an employee issue, it can quickly become one if it’s not handled properly.

Human resources professionals have an essential role in advocating for employee productivity, but they aren’t typically skilled to lead in a crisis. Here are four reasons why the HR department shouldn’t be tasked with carrying out your crisis communications plan — and why your PR team should be.

Different Perspectives On What The Issue Means

Last year, two of our clients faced a crisis within one week of each other. Each incident had the potential to significantly damage brand image and cost the company money in operations, sales and other resources. While both situations had a happy ending, one was infinitely more challenging than the other. The reason? HR took control and the lines of communication between my team and the company essentially shut down, which left us guessing where to go next. The HR representative, who had never before been a part of the communications plan, was suddenly in the middle of it all — and she was protective and defensive. While we were both trying to get to the same endpoint, the HR professional was more worried about legal ramifications than dealing with the incident at the moment. Why? Because that’s what an HR department is supposed to do — protect and advocate.

It isn’t the job of an HR department to identify and mitigate a crisis. An HR department that’s charged with leading an effort it doesn’t normally handle could wind up jeopardizing the outcome. And that outcome can be costly. An appropriate and timely response can save a company from expensive legal fees and the task of rebuilding a brand reputation. 

 If you rely on internal PR resources or work with an agency partner, it is critically important to plan for the unseen and have a process for managing a crisis event when it occurs. Each crisis is unique and requires thoughtful, meaningful and quick action in order to keep it from becoming a national news headline or an unflattering meme that will live online for months to come.

Knowing How To Respond — And Where

News of the United Airlines incident in April of last year broke on Facebook when a passenger uploaded a video. The next day, the CEO responded in a statement broadcast by several media outlets. The fallout was swift and merciless. One of the mistakes was not addressing the Facebook audience first. It’s critical for a company to respond to a crisis where it erupts — and to do so expediently. If it starts on Facebook, respond on Facebook. If it’s Twitter, then respond there.

HR departments have to be extremely careful how and where they communicate with employees and external audiences, and they often want to wait, examine and tread carefully. This methodical approach won’t work in a crisis. A crisis can change courses every 10 to 15 minutes — and sometimes you have to assess and respond on the fly. A longer wait can increase the risk, as was the case with United Airlines.

News of the United Airlines incident in April of last year broke on Facebook when a passenger uploaded a video. The next day, the CEO responded in a statement broadcast by several media outlets. The fallout was swift and merciless. One of the mistakes was not addressing the Facebook audience first. It’s critical for a company to respond to a crisis where it erupts — and to do so expediently. If it starts on Facebook, respond on Facebook. If it’s Twitter, then respond there.

HR departments have to be extremely careful how and where they communicate with employees and external audiences, and they often want to wait, examine and tread carefully. This methodical approach won’t work in a crisis. A crisis can change courses every 10 to 15 minutes — and sometimes you have to assess and respond on the fly. A longer wait can increase the risk, as was the case with United Airlines.

An internal PR team or external firm that understands the intricacies of crisis communications is trained to move with agility and speed and, therefore, more equipped to respond effectively on the right channels. A PR team will not see the incident through one lens. Instead, it will consider all stakeholders and the potential questions and communication necessary for customer service members who may field calls, social media departments, inquiries from investors or strategic partners and, of course, the news media.

Objective Fact Gathering

In a crisis, it’s vital to talk to stakeholders and gather facts. Often, employees feel a sense of freedom in talking with a third party. Said another way, employees often feel constrained talking to HR. They may withhold information or facts for fear their jobs could be impacted.

PR professionals understand better than anyone the need for transparency and accurate reporting of the facts. An effective PR partner will think like a journalist and respond to their needs while balancing the needs and proprietary information of your organization.

No Crisis Is Black And White

A PR team comes to the table with an innate advantage: objectivity. Public relations professionals can assess the issue through a different lens than the HR team. We are poised to find a different interpretation of a situation that may seem bleak or stressful to an internal employee.

By the nature of what they do, HR professionals have limited objectivity and a heavy sense of responsibility that comes with sticking to the rules. But no crisis is a black-and-white situation, and PR professionals can leverage creativity and common sense to fix the problem — all while finding a silver lining.

In every crisis there is an opportunity, whether it’s an opportunity to change operational protocol, engage a new system or process, increase sales or change the culture. There is always a way to make things better and leverage the bad for the good. A PR team can help leadership discover exactly what these opportunities are.

At some point, every company will face a crisis. The key is to respond quickly, efficiently and honestly to mitigate the fallout. A trained internal or external PR team can be the best ally — and save the company in revenue, retention and reputation.

Find the original Forbes article here.



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