Ad Agency PR Is Never More in Demand than During a Crisis

Palm tree in Puerto Rico

A couple weeks ago, a car crashed into the church I attend. That’s right, a car. And it did some major damage to the area it hit. (The car didn’t come out of this all that well either.)

It happened late at night when the driver, who apparently was traveling at a high rate of speed, missed the curve in front of our church and plowed into the building. He fled on foot, but it didn’t take long for the police to track him down.

I have to admit that I never thought about the possibility of a car hitting our church—but it did. The incident was a stark reminder that a crisis can strike at any time, without warning.

Ad agency PR is never  more in demand—and needed—than in a crisis. A case in point is another incident that took place—also at night—that not only was unexpected, but potentially devastating to a mental health center owed by an agency client.

Somewhere around 3:30 a.m., on a Friday, I got a call from one of the agency’s partners where I worked at the time saying that the client’s mental health center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had just experienced a fire that damaged a unit of the facility.

Two patients were dead, and reporters were onsite covering the story.

Rumors were flying, I was told, and I needed to get on a plane in the morning to go handle the matter. My weekend was going to a little different than I planned.

When I arrived in San Juan and entered the hotel lobby, my eyes were drawn to a newspaper with a front-page story and photo about a prison riot where 26 people were injured and several guards had been taken hostage. The news media left the mental health center to cover the prison riot, which bought us some time to get organized.

I quickly discovered that the number of newspapers in San Juan numbers in the teens, making it feel more like a regional than local story given the number of print outlets we had to deal with (not to mention radio and TV).

After being transported from my hotel to the mental health center, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the marketing director and chief medical officer (who served as our spokesman) were top-notch pros, and they were going to make my job much easier.

Plus, the center had established good relationships in the community, so it had plenty of goodwill to draw upon, and there was no shortage of people who were willing to help us.

After a quick briefing to ascertain the facts, determine what had been communicated by the media (including rumors that the facility had burned to the ground) and making a list of all our audiences, we developed a game plan, followed by a crash media training session in which I helped our spokesman and marketing director prepare for interviews.

Here’s what happened next:

  • We established a link with the police and fire department spokespersons to get advance notice of what they would say to the media so that we had time to prepare our responses.
  • I worked with the staff to put together a brief statement for employees, patient family members and the news media, updating them on the latest information. The statement expressed concern for the victims’ families and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staff who tried to save everyone, and managed to do so except, unfortunately, for the two patients who perished. (I later learned these patients were suspected of having set the fire in the first place).
  • The statement included a clear but low-key message that the hospital was functioning, and that only one unit of it was affected by the fire.
  • We also developed a fact sheet explaining what happened to combat rampant rumors and made it available to reporters and other interested parties.
  • Media coverage of our statement was light because of the Columbus Day holiday (which I learned is a big deal in Puerto Rico), so we took out full-page ads reprinting it in leading newspapers.
  • We also sent a letter from our spokesperson, who was highly respected in the local medical community, to key referral sources to ensure they understood that the center was functioning.
  • Finally, we encouraged health care professionals in the community to speak out on behalf of the center within their areas of influence.

All this took place over the weekend, and in less than 48 hours I was able to return home.

In the days that followed, the mental health center reported very positive responses from the community, while the news media was on to its next story.

My main takeaway from this experience: We were able to manage this crisis so effectively in large part because of competent staff and positive relationships in the community.

photo credit: Ricymar Photography (Thanks to all the fans!!!!) via photopin cc

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