Ten points on tackling controversy

By Niki Wheeler,

When you ‘get into bed’ with a client who has a tarnished reputation, faces potential issues or is making big changes, making the wrong call can have an impact on your own brand as a comms pro too.

Though ‘gut reaction’ when an opportunity comes through (moral code, brief, past experience) might well be the way that you decide whether to work on something – it’s how the potential client handles the consultancy appointment process which often determines whether you tie your colours to their mast or not.

I’ve generally got ten points I consider after a spot of due diligence (cuttings, social media stalking etc).

1: What’s the brief? Is the client asking you to handle a specific issue, campaign or present an approach? Being amenable to the latter demonstrates they’re truly open to changing perception and trusting the consultant they get on board rather than simply papering over the cracks which might emerge along the way.

2: Are you sent an NDA at the start of your discussions? This is generally par for the course but also indicates that the client is open to you asking the questions that get to the bottom of their challenge – before you commit to working together.

3: What’s the calibre of the people involved in the process – seniority, experience, length of service? Is there an established crisis management process already in place and who is involved in this? This also highlights whether you are dealing with an org with a comms infrastructure – or not.

4: Does the comms function or your point of contact already sit at the ‘top table’ where they are privy to sensitive discussions or other items on the risk register which could have an impact on what they’ve asked you to do? Can you tap into their industry expertise and ability to get to senior stakeholders, quickly?

5: How objective are the people involved and do you trust them? Though ‘change-makers’ are often new brooms, have you worked with them in a past life and do you trust them when they say an organisation which has made mistakes in the past (or very recent past) is serious about putting things right? If someone’s been in an org for a long time, do they still have an objective view?

6: What’s the chemistry like between the clients? Is there time to go and see the organisation face to face and on site before something ‘breaks’ or a key date when it might? Who will make time for this meeting? Do they listen to your point of contact? Is there a parent company or investor involved? How do they need to be involved?

7: Spokespeople (or not)– even if it’s going to be difficult to put someone up for interview – is the board open to testing their response to a specific challenge or issue with media training? Are they aligned? Are they ready for being door-stepped and are they ready for difficult questions?

8: Is the client open to cultural or operational change beyond the ‘cosmetic’ or short-term? Are they open to creative suggestions here?

9: Who knows what? Who knows about an issue internally and are there other advisors involved in the process (agencies, lawyers, other?) How likely is a leak from a third party?

10: What else is going on? If there is regular ‘drumbeat’ PR and marketing work going on, what’s in the calendar and can things stop or change if they are going to strike completely the wrong tone?

But most importantly, can you sleep at night? Once you’ve gathered the info and sometimes even given some initial advice – how do you feel in the morning? Sleeping on things can be the way to decide whether you’ll take the gamble and turn what might seem like a comms challenge into what which become a force for good in the future.

Niki Wheeler is a London-based PR director.

Image by chitsu san from Pixabay

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