How to Survive a Public Relations Nightmare

Too often the old adage becomes true: "A lie travels around the world while the truth is lacing up its shoes." But it doesn't have to be this way. You can survive and come out stronger from a PR nightmare. Here's how.

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It's no news to you that law enforcement in America is being scrutinized in a way we have not seen before. In the world of smart phones and social media, any ambling citizen in the wrong place at the right time can record and upload his or her uninformed story for all the world to see. And by the time authorities have reviewed that data and presented the evidence, the rumor has traveled the social media world.

Too often the old adage becomes true: "A lie travels around the world while the truth is lacing up its shoes." But it doesn't have to be this way. You can survive and come out stronger from a PR nightmare. Here's how.


The most important things you can do to weather the PR storm happen before the crisis.

Don't Wait To Say "I Love You"

Often overlooked, this is perhaps the most important step.

Evaluate your department's relationship with your community like you would any personal relationship. How would you describe it? Is it warm and friendly? Cold and "professional"? Don't let your department be like the person who first expressed love for his partner at the point of a breakup. You are much more likely to survive a public relations "bump in the road" if you have invested in and established a healthy relationship before the (real or perceived) indiscretion. Foster a positive, friendly relationship with the community before disaster strikes. Getting this step right makes all the others so much easier—and has the added benefit of increasing the effectiveness of your day-to-day community policing efforts.

Practice and Plan

No doubt your department has drilled for drug busts, active-shooter scenarios, disaster relief and the like. But, have you drilled for a public relations disaster? In a PR crisis, the promptness of your response goes a long way toward portraying the kind of proactive transparency that helps foster trust and gain some control over the story. Get your management team together and walk through what your response would be to a variety of possible scenarios.

A good plan will include:

  • Decision-making tree
  • List of those on the Crisis Communications Team
  • Deciding on a spokesperson (consider a person's ability to communicate with the media, not just position)
  • List of contact info for media outlets
  • Procedure for how to deal with a rash of press inquiries
  • Templates for: press releases, e-mail responses, social media posts, e-mail reminding staff of department policy regarding communicating with the public about the issues (consider both press and social media)

Focus on the nuances of wordsmithing now, while the pressure is off, so that you can focus on the urgent matters during the crisis.


Be Human

The big thing to remember in any crisis is that it is an issue of trust being lost. Whether the loss of trust is deserved or undeserved, the goal of crisis management is restoring that trust. In any response, it is important not only to get the facts right but also the emotion right. Leadership guru John Maxwell says, "People don't know how much you know until they know how much you care." It is important to acknowledge the issue at hand and show empathy for the public's response. Then you can begin to address the facts of the case. If the primary goal becomes damage control or self-preservation, today's media savvy public will sniff that out. People today are savvy to politi-speak so be real; show empathy for the situation while working to resolve it.

Be Quick

Respond quickly; don't just hope the issue will go away. Time that passes with no communication opens the door for suspicion and the "story" growing without you having any influence on its direction. Even if you have very few details at the outset, it's better to become a part of the conversation sooner rather than later. A brief statement acknowledging the situation and stating that you are working on it, and will soon bring details, is a plus. Don't be so quick that you get the facts wrong, don't guess or hypothesize, but do quickly become part of the conversation. A nod here to my previous point about pre-planning: the better prepared you are, the more quickly you will be able to provide an effective response.

Be Transparent

Say what you know when you know. Give continual updates on progress. Err on the side of over-communicating. (Note: this is different than over-sharing.) If you don't know yet, say so and let the public know that you will work on finding out—and then proactively follow up with what you find out. When you are still gathering facts and do not yet have conclusions to report, let people in on the process you are using to come to a conclusion.

When possible, invite the public's help in solving the problem. Give a forum for public interaction and invite them to follow updates on social media. Do what you can to discourage an "us" vs. "them" perception of the issue. Asking for help can make resolving the issue a "team" effort and help begin to restore any trust that may have been lost.

Be Right

Mistakes are forgivable. Intentional deception and hypocrisy are not—at least to the public. Don't try to hide facts or sugar coat legitimate issues that need addressing. The truth will come out eventually and hurt even more. When no wrong has been committed, work to humbly educate as to why proper actions were taken. Where there is a legitimate issue that needs addressing, take responsibility, address it, and let people know what your department is doing to correct it. As soon as appropriate, provide news about other newsworthy department activities (that are positive) that are unrelated to the issue.


As with every plan, you will have to make adjustments in response to the needs of the particular crisis. But planning in advance will narrow the variables and help you focus on what matters in the urgency of the moment. You will also be better prepared to make any needed adjustments. Do make sure you involve legal counsel in the planning and actual response to advise on legal ramifications of decisions and public statements.

Many of these concepts deserve unpacking in detail that won't fit here. But the big takeaway is that the best things you can do to weather a PR nightmare happen now—not after the crisis erupts. So don't let what is currently urgent stop you from taking the important steps necessary to prepare.

Michael Cloud is founder and creative director of Bright Idea Media, which runs the Website

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