In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, I was one of the millions glued to news and social media outlets for updates on this senseless event. During the nonstop coverage of my hometown, the press interviewed countless experts on a range of topics. And public relations (PR)/communications pros played a role in connecting reporters to many of these sources.

Conducting PR related to a national crisis requires a heightened degree of awareness, and there can be a significant backlash against PR agencies and brands that come across as insensitive or exploitative during these situations. Based on my experience in this area, I’ve highlighted four PR tips to keep in mind:

    1. When in Doubt, Don’t:  On the afternoon of 9/11, many Americans were grieving while first responders and law enforcement officials were working frantically to save lives and ensure our safety. And one PR firm north of Boston sent a pitch to local media acknowledging the attack and stressing that a second “crisis” facing Americans was the high cost of college. This is one of many pitches that made national headlines, but for all the wrong reasons (article link). Although this is an extreme example, many companies damage their credibility with misguided PR campaigns that overreach and try to draw parallels that just aren’t there. Conversely, John Hancock (Boston Marathon sponsor) and other Boston-area businesses are quietly pledging funds for area victims.
    2. Track the Shift in Coverage Focus:  Monitor how an event is being covered and how the news cycle evolves from first reporting the incident itself, to immediate analysis and then a broader examination of interrelated themes. Also use social media chatter as a barometer to better understand if – or how – it makes sense for you to reach out.
    3. Start With Your Established Press Contacts:  I represented a cyber security company during 9/11. And when I saw a couple of IT reporters who I worked with regularly write stories again, I reached out to see how they were doing, if their friends and family were safe, etc. I spoke with them live when I could – emails can be misinterpreted and I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t trolling to get a client included in a story. In many cases, I talked with reporters about the conflicting feelings of covering IT security within the context of 9/11. And during interviews, my clients typically began the briefings by sharing similar hesitations.
    4. Remember That Reporters Are People Too:  These are emotional times for everyone. Recently, I was working with a NY-based reporter on an article when Hurricane Sandy hit the NY/NJ area. After not hearing from him for more than a week, I reached out to see if his family was ok. I didn’t ask him about the article – that wasn’t my goal. It turns out that he lost power and was scrambling to find a temporary place to stay so that he could get back to work. Today, I doubt that he recalls much of our storm conversations but I would have left an indelible impression if I pestered him about an article or story idea when he had much more significant issues to deal with.

Planning Your Next Move

The marathon bombing victims continue to be in my thoughts, and I am grateful for the brave first responders, Samaritans, medical teams and law enforcement officials who have performed so heroically. During incidents like these, PR can play a role in helping the media gain clarity and perspective during a time of confusion. But carefully determine if you have meaningful insights before beginning a PR campaign that can have lasting negative consequences.

By focusing on the importance of maintaining trusted relationships with reporters, you can easily resist short-term press opportunities that may not help your company in the long run.

(Feature image used with permission from Ben Spark under a Creative Commons license)