A business public relations crisis can happen at any time, and most likely, when you are not expecting it. The thing is, just because you’ve had one public relations crisis doesn’t mean another isn’t right around the corner.
That’s precisely what happened to a construction company with deep ties in its community. The established contractor had a long safety record that they were very proud of. They had successfully completed multiple school projects, in addition to other construction work. When this crisis hit, they had several construction sites in the works with other school districts.
The project was moving right along. School was in session and the project was already vertical. Through a series of unfortunate events, there were two separate accidents that cost two men their lives. The accidents involved two different subcontractors and occurred a week apart, but were at the same school site. What otherwise would have been a peaceful construction project with a ribbon-cutting at the end had now become a full-blown construction public relations crisis.
The school district shut down the site to do their own safety investigation. They wanted to reassure themselves they had the best contractor for the job. Because of the local and national news covering the deaths, and ensuring the safety of their sites.
Murnahan Public Relations was brought in for our expertise in working with the media during a crisis. We also have expertise in working in highly regulated environments with public entities.
The team met with the company owners to get a handle on the nature of the incidents and the status of the crisis. We focused on two goals: First, reduce the volume of negative media coverage; second, help the company regain the trust of its customers and get back to work.
We started by creating a communication recovery plan. In this case, the first step was to develop a heartfelt condolence message. That message was then shared with the news media, on the company website, and on social media sites. We also updated the website to have a tab for news.
Discussions about how to proceed were lengthy and thoughtful. Some of the topics covered were:
– Who do we send to the funerals?
– How do we express our sadness to the public?
– Will the contractors who suffered the loss of life be allowed back on the site?
– What is being said about us in the news?
– What do the school boards think of us?
– Who communicates with who?
– What do we want to say?
Moving quickly, we reviewed the news coverage of the events to understand the story that had been told up to that point. Simultaneously, we reached out to the primary school district to better understand their concerns and what it would take to regain their trust.
On that first day, we also put together the messaging and, with our client’s approval, moved that into talking points for them to be able to use. This is where we updated the website with the new “News” tab. We made other strategic moves, like removing the company photo of everyone on the team with smiling, happy faces. The objective was to show that we were sensitive to the people who were hurting in the community.
Also that first, day, we developed messaging. From there, we went on to develop the “no-talking points” document for all the topics that we needed to keep clear of.
Just as important, we encouraged the owners to consolidate all their incident response actions into a single response document. We wanted their clients and the media to easily see how thorough and conscientious the contractor was being.
Last but far from least, we assumed responsibility for working with the communication teams of the school districts involved. We wanted to keep them informed of all the safety steps the company was taking. After all, the school districts were under pressure, too. In times of crisis, it’s important to work as partners as much as possible.
Of course, we also stayed in regular contact with the company leaders throughout the project, offering insights and updates on our progress in managing the storm.
With the messaging in hand, The next step was to settle on specifics—what we wanted to say about the incidents, and how we wanted to say it. When you are in the midst of a public relations crisis, it’s essential to have clear, consistent messaging. The goal was to move from messaging to talking points to change the conversation.
The documents we created were something the company leaders could take with them when they spoke at school board meetings. But, better than that, we helped them understand how to tell their story, succinctly, without getting caught up in the weeds of what went wrong, instead of focusing on how to move forward. We also prepared media statements that highlighted the company’s excellent safety history.
We provided media training for the owners to ensure that they were ready if needed to go on camera at any upcoming school board meeting. When you are surrounded by reporters and television cameras, even the most poised public speaker can get ruffled. It’s hard to appreciate how difficult this can be until you’ve been through it yourself.
Look, media training isn’t just standing up straight and looking at the reporter, not the camera. We spend as much time as needed to ensure the person is ready to answer the questions. A formal training program is typically four to eight hours. A more robust training can last two to three days for someone who wants to be a real pro.
We also took over responsibility for handling local and national media inquiries. Remember: On top of trying to deal with this crisis, our clients were still trying to run a business.
Just a few weeks later, we took stock of where things stood. First, negative media coverage of the company had dropped dramatically. In fact, it was nonexistent. Second—and most important—the company had regained the confidence of the various school boards involved. All of their construction sites were back up and running.
Our crisis communications plan had helped them achieve a quick recovery. Today, a company on the brink of collapse is not only surviving but thriving. They remain one of the most trusted names in school construction, with many projects completed and many more in progress.
Like most projects, you have to start by doing your research. What is the current situation, what do you need to learn? Has the client had issues in the past? Have there been other situations with similar buildings or at other schools? We have to know how the situation is developing, what the sentiment is, what are the concerns, what questions are being asked. So many questions to ask.
We needed to put a plan together to address the major concerns. Demonstrate competence by the client in their field of expertise, construction. Limit the use of their name in the media and get them back to work. The plan in essence was built and being executed within 36 hours of being hired.
Executing the plan meant reaching out to all the entities involved to ensure that we had great lines of communication. We needed to know what they were planning and they needed to know what we were planning to do. The school district had hired its own construction safety expert to evaluate the situation. We were confident that what we were sharing with the school district and others was in line with the safety audit. Our actions were mirroring what our words were saying!
As we say, the results we edited the plan, modified it as needed and we were ready to pivot if needed. The execution to speak the words, matched with our actions–to walk the walk, and talk the talk–pushed our plan to success. The school board put the client back to work.
Evaluation is always critical. At the end of the day, we reviewed our efforts, bi-daily media reports that turned to daily that by the end went to weekly kept us in the know. We watched our social media accounts and ran the numbers to understand the sentiment expressed on social networks. We asked the school representatives their feelings about the situation and we consulted with our client.
Our summary report showed the tasks performed and the outcomes. We hit a home run in every sense of the word. The construction was completed without additional incident. The school board never had to revisit the topic.
If your company is having a public relations crisis, you can turn to Murnahan PR. We have the experience and skills to help you weather the storm.
Of course, while it’s good to be able to respond to a public relations crisis, it’s even better to be prepared for one. The best way to do that is by seeking out a quality public relations firm in advance. Just as you probably already have a law firm on retainer, it’s wise to have an established relationship with a trusted public relations firm.
Our team has worked with clients large and small from various industries. We have expertise in public relations, strategic communications, and crisis communications. We will focus on building and protecting the reputation of your business, so you can focus on making it grow. Learn more about our work. Or call us today at 817-689-9913 or use the chat tool.