Crisis Communications: How to Handle the Press When Unexpected, Bad News Befalls Your Agency

It can be the most challenging part of public relations work, but also one of the most important. It’s called crisis communications, and if not handled correctly, an advertising agency could suffer serious consequences.

Crises can take many forms (sexual harassment, product tampering, financial malfeasance) and no agency or individual is immune. Just ask any of the celebrities brought down by the #MeToo movement, or C-level executives who have faced criminal prosecution for their alleged misdeeds. Advertising agencies are just as vulnerable as any other enterprise, as history has shown. For example:

· In the fall of 2020, The Richards Group suffered a scandal that led to the loss of all its biggest clients and the resignation of its founder, Stan Richards. The agency’s fall from grace was the result of a racist remark that Richards—the agency’s 88-year-old founder—made in an internal meeting regarding a TV spot the agency had created for one of its top clients, Motel 6. Richards had said he thought the spot was “too Black” and would potentially alienate the client’s “significant white supremacist constituents.”

· In late 2017, the venerable Martin Agency of Richmond, Va., parted ways with its Chief Creative Officer Joe Alexander and initially declined to discuss the circumstances under which he left. But the next week Adweek published a damaging article that said Alexander left after being accused of numerous allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. In the scandal’s aftermath the agency named a new CEO and Creative Director, which led to an overhaul of the entire agency’s senior leadership.

· A few years ago, one of my own former clients suffered a series of crises related to employment discrimination and sexual harassment. They struggled as to whether to respond to reporter requests for interviews, and if so, what should they say? Since it was a sexual harassment issue, they grappled with whether the agency’s white male CEO should speak to the press or should a key female agency executive serve as spokesperson. They ultimately went with the female executive, only after we confirmed that she was close to the issue and address it articulately.

Those examples alone illustrate that the trade press covering ad agencies is keenly interested in scandals and, in fact, a few reporters at various outlets are particularly adept at ferreting out damaging information. The message is that if a crisis erupts at your agency, don’t think you can keep it under wraps. The news will almost certainly leak, and then you are faced with having to respond.

The bottom line is that when a crisis befalls your agency, your reputation is on the line. The way you handle it when communicating with the media can—in a matter of days or even hours—either save or destroy what took years to build. The key is to be prepared and make sure you have an established crisis communications plan in place when a storm hits your shores. Here are five tips to keep in mind:

1. Be honest. Answer the media’s questions as fairly and honestly as you possibly can. Don’t be disingenuous. If you can’t answer a specific question, say so and tell the media you will find an answer for them as soon as possible.

2. Be fast. In the digital age, news cycles are now 24 hours a day, seven days a week and reporters move quickly. They have deadlines to meet and competitors to beat, so if a crisis breaks and the media has enough information for a story, they will cover it whether they get a response from you or not. You want to make sure your side of the story gets told, so you have to be ready to act quickly. Time is of the essence in crisis communications so be sure you are ready to respond when the press comes calling.

3. Make sure when speaking to reporters that your comments are clear and not open to interpretation or lacking clarity. You need to have concise, succinct talking points that present your position in credible and convincing facts to help you explain the situation plainly and genuinely.

4. If your agency spokesperson goes “off the record” with a reporter in order to clarify or augment your message with background information, sure she/he establishes specific ground rules for exactly what that condition means. Some reporters think off the record means they can use the information but not attribute it, but it can also mean the information can be used only for the reporter’s own background and edification and cannot appear in the story itself. Best to clarify in order to avoid confusion and the possible backlash.

5. Use social media to help disseminate your message. Agencies no longer need to rely solely on the media to reach their clients, business partners, and prospects. Social media allows you to craft your own message without third-party interpretation and can be a strong and effective tool in making sure your side of the story gets told accurately and quickly. Use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and any other platforms your agency employs to spread the word, and do it frequently.

Nobody wants a crisis, but in today’s social and business climate it can happen seemingly overnight and without the slightest warning. The key is to be prepared and meet the challenge head-on with candor, accuracy, substance, and authenticity.