Bizarre PR – A Look at Crisis PR

By Andrea Crawford
Last weekend was Drexel PRSSA’s Regional Activity entitled Bizarre PR.  As a student in Steve Manuel’s crisis communications class I was most interested in hearing from Jerri Williams, the current chief press officer for SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority).  William’s spoke on many different crises she’s dealt with in her career at SEPTA and was even dealing with one as our presentation was going on.
Williams is a unique woman.  She spent the first 26 years of her career as a Special Agent for the FBI before her retirement. While in the FBI her work focused on economic crime investigation, and she served as the full-time spokesperson for the Philadelphia Division of the FBI. Today her career deals with preparing all media related to SEPTA.
Williams’s multimedia presentation offered tons of examples of crisis communications that have happened at SEPTA in her time there. She talked about how at one time she faced a union strike that began at 3 a.m., which was followed in the same week by a train fire and the death of an employee on the job.  She showed pictures and talked about how to deal with all sorts of crises.
A lot of the main points that she focused on in her presentation were things that I’ve been learning all semester: the importance of never saying “no comment”; stick to your message; reporters are not your enemy; if you can’t answer the media’s questions right away tell them you will get back to them & do so as soon as you can.
There were also many other insights she offered that were really beneficial.  One of the pieces I found most useful is to create a “good guy” and a “bad guy” for the media in whatever you give them and always make your company the good guy.  This past winter SEPTA had to shut down some of their transportation services for the first time in almost 15 years because of the snow. Instead of letting the public get angry at them, SEPTA talked to the press as if snow was the “bad guy” and SEPTA was the “good guy”.  I thought it was really neat trick to use.
Other important public relations advice was to always know what you want to say, say it and leave it at that when dealing with an interviewer. Always try to have 3 major points to your message that you’re going to stick to. If you run into questions you aren’t prepared for or if you feel like the interview is going in a direction lead it back with bridging techniques using sayings such as “I think the main issue in question here is…” or “Our real focus in dealing with our problem is…”
Overall it was a great presentation.  It made me feel prepared as if my crisis communications class has prepared me really well for a career in public relations.  I will leave you with what Williams calls the “4 Fatal Fiascoes of Public Relations”:
1) Never say “no comment”
2) Never lie in an interview
3) Remember to never lose your temper
4) Don’t lose eye contact when speaking with a reporter

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