Watson Institute at Brown University
Public Policy

Risa Heller's Six Smart Tips on Managing a Public Relations Crisis

November 9, 2015

Risa Heller

In a world of social media frenzy and digital news, public reputations are constantly at risk, warns crisis communications expert Risa Heller. On October 22, Heller led a candid roundtable discussion with Brown students, faculty, and community members at the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy. In a talk titled “Managing Reputations in the Era of TMZ and Twitter,” Heller shared tips on how manage a rapidly unfolding crisis and prevent a total image meltdown (think Bill Cosby or the University of Virginia sexual assault scandal).

Heller, who runs her own New York City-based communications agency counts some big name organizations among her clients: New York City Opera and Airbnb, to name two. She has also managed public relations crises of high-profile politicians including Anthony Weiner, David Paterson, and other public figures whose reputations were threatened by scandalous information that surfaced in the press. 

“News cycles move in seconds now,” Heller said, remarking that avoiding crisis in an era of lightning-speed technology and swift communication is much harder than even a decade ago. Here are her tips for when, plan or not, the s--t hits the fan.

  1. Be prepared. Heller shared that astoundingly, many large companies and public figures have no advance crisis plan at all. Failing to have a strategy in place is the most common, and deadly, mistake, she said. “You have to position yourself to survive,” Heller said. Trouble doesn’t necessarily entail doing something wrong — it can involve any kind of “media firestorm.” A coordinated communication plan (you want one message out there) is often needed to douse the flames.

  2. Honesty is the best policy. Lying only fuels the fire, according to Heller. "When a public figure is in crisis, whether a celebrity or a politician, their first instinct is to deny embarrassing allegations,” said Heller. But the truth usually comes out eventually, and when it does, the damage can be exponential. “Lies erode your brand and the trust of media who have supported initial denials." Telling the truth from the start is the first step toward image rehabilitation, said Heller.

  3. Framing is essential. Once you have a grip on the facts, the next step is figuring out how to frame them. “You have to gather all of the facts and then control the flow of information.”  Heller gave the example of the long-running furor over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of personal email while at the State Department. People were weighing in left and right, speaking to newspapers and commenting on the situation, said Heller. “It’s like death by a thousand paper cuts. That’s when things go completely haywire.”

  4. Silence screams the truth. In the midst of a crisis, “you can’t just say ‘no comment’…it implicit meaning is that you’re guilty…you have to figure out from a communications perspective what you can do to help thread the needle,” said Heller.

  5. Speed is the key to containment. It’s better to respond as soon as possible before a crisis can grow out of hand, said Heller. “Contain your crisis to as short of a span as possible so you don’t get raked over the coals,” she said.

  6. Respond to criticism. One attendee wondered whether it is better to respond to criticism directed at a specific group or organization on social media, or ignore it altogether. Heller argued for the defensive stance.  “Usually, I think it’s best to respond, especially when it’s core to your brand,” she said. However, she admitted this strategy might vary depending on the type of criticism and the source.

Heller’s bottom line: with increasing journalistic competition to have the “best and most interesting ‘scoopiest’ story,” reputations are always at risk. But the key lesson, Heller said, “is to learn is you have to look at the whole of what went wrong, and respond as quickly as possible.”

—Elizabeth Conway ’17