Crisis communications is problem solving on the fly, so when a potential client comes knocking at your door for help, there is not much time to ponder a response. In the realm of crisis communications, judgments must be made quickly without the luxury of time. But how do you decide which clients you will take a pass on and which ones you will take on?
In those initial moments, crisis managers must synthesize loads of facts related to the case and decide if a client’s needs and culture mesh with their own company’s values. Typically, when a crisis call comes in from someone who needs help, the crisis PR team must be ready to drop everything and do whatever it can to serve the client’s interests. In most cases, this means meeting someone for the first time over the phone or via video chat.
At my company, we take this process very seriously. Thought and consideration must go into making the sometimes split-second decision as to whether you will engage with a prospective client or not.
PROTECTING REPUTATIONS AMID CRISES
Crisis consultants, like defense attorneys, are typically hired to safeguard reputations and redirect narratives. Outside of that, the role of a crisis communications consultant is very different from that of a defense attorney, although some people think the two roles are similar.
Defense attorneys may represent individuals who are facing serious criminal allegations, and under our judicial system, everyone is entitled to due process under the law. In addition, everyone deserves the opportunity to receive representation from a competent attorney.
No such assurances extend to crisis communications, so choosing to represent someone is never required by law. We choose our clients carefully because we are in the business of reputation preservation or restoration and work hard to right wrongs and correct misinformation. Many times, we help repair reputations and restore dignity to clients whose good names have been smeared online or in person. Reporters know when we bring them information that it has been checked out and is accurate.
CHOOSING SUITABLE CLIENTS
Our reputation of being reputable and having high integrity was built steadily over the past decade, and we protect it fiercely. We say “no” to a lot of clients for a variety of different reasons, and it often comes down to gut instinct. Here are some signs to watch out for that will help you decide whether or not to engage with a client.
In some cases, you may feel the individual has not been forthcoming with you and you are not getting all the facts. You cannot represent these individuals since that could potentially damage your relationships with current members of the media and current clients, calling into question your own credibility.
It’s also important to decline when potential clients want to wield PR as a weapon to carry out personal vendettas. In crisis communications, we are in the business of fighting for the truth and empowering people through strategic communications, not the business of tearing down reputations or settling personal scores. When those kinds of inquiries come in, consistently answer “no.”
In other instances, you’ll see clients who do not want to address the issue that got them into trouble in the first place. They don’t want to own their mistakes, be held accountable for their actions, make restitution, or right a wrong. The same goes for potential clients who seek PR counsel with the goal of relieving outside pressure or deflecting interest so they can continue the same kind of behavior that caused their problems in the first place. Steer clear of those who regret the consequences of having been caught but who you believe are unrepentant about the activities that got them into trouble.
LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
All that said, most people deserve a second chance. In the era of “cancel culture“—when rushes to judgement result in snap decisions that tarnish and sometimes destroy people’s careers and lives—crisis PR can be a game changer. Barring extreme examples or illegal actions, most people do not deserve to see their livelihood and future permanently destroyed because of one mistake, alone.
The process of choosing clients is not perfect, and under tough conditions and tight timelines, our senior team has been required to make its fair share of judgment calls. I am confident that we have gotten most of them right, but not all of them. In some instances, we may have made a mistake by declining to help someone who did deserve to have their story told.
The decision to deploy team members in the service of a client involves more than just financial considerations. There are many other intangibles to consider, including honor, integrity, decency, kindness, and honesty.
There is no magic formula when it comes to deciding whether or not to take up a cause, but gut instinct, research, a reliance on core values, and a few leaps of faith will serve you well. Hopefully you can continue to make the right calls, helping those who have been wronged, and relying on core values to guide you forward.
Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan, an international crisis PR and strategic communications agency.