Companies, organisations, executives and business owners are more vulnerable to a major issue or crisis that can severely damage their reputation than ever before. They are also in more danger of receiving the wrong advice than ever before.

 Public relations consultants and agencies are misleading clients by claiming to be experts in crisis communications when they are not. If general medical practitioners all decided to claim to be heart specialists, many patients would receive the wrong advice and the result would be catastrophic. Fortunately regulations in the medical profession prevent that from happening, however anyone can present themselves as a crisis communications expert, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

 The art of crisis communications is specialised and vastly different from general PR. I’ve practiced in this area for the last 15 years as part of my corporate communications work which I’ve done for 25 years. I’ve handled major international issues, worked across a multitude of industries and crises, and led crisis communications for corporate, government and non-profit clients.

 Furthermore I’ve completed specialist training in the USA, been involved with high level crisis conferences in Europe, and trained corporate and non-profit leaders across three continents in this very specialised area.

 While I’ve met other highly credible professionals who have a similar background and focus, the dangerous reality for corporate leaders looking for the best advice is that since the Covid pandemic, most public relations consultants who claim to be crisis communications experts are not.

 The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns meant a lot of PR work dried up as brands cut budgets, but crisis work was still relatively strong.

 So PR consultants simply tacked “crisis communications” onto their profiles and bios, while agencies that specialised in lifestyle products and Instagram influencers included “crisis communications” in the services they offer. Now it’s almost mandatory to list it.

 It is clear that the vast majority have no actual crisis experience. Sure, some may have handled a few minor issues for a previous employer that they believe qualifies them, but that’s a bit like claiming to be a professional chef because you can cook a great lasagne.

Even holding a senior communications role for a large corporation or being a senior government ministerial advisor doesn’t automatically qualify you to consult in the area of crisis communications. It definitely gives you some key principles, it probably means you are an excellent PR professional, and in the case of ministerial advisors it surely means you understand how to exploit the media cycle and deflect tough questions from journalists, but it’s too one-dimensional to truly be able to effectively guide companies through a corporate crisis or help them plan to avoid major issues.

More amazingly, journalists wanting to cross over into PR have also jumped on the crisis comms bandwagon, believing that being able to create a great news story or conduct a tough interview somehow translates to the knowledge needed to advise clients through serious issues.

The result is poor outcomes for clients who entrust their reputation to those not up to the job.

One of the biggest failures of these purported crisis experts is that they have a basic knowledge. The fictional lawyer in The Castle Dennis Denuto famously tried to argue a case about constitutional law by declaring “it’s the vibe”. While he may have been competent in general legal practice, his lack of knowledge in constitutional law created problems for his client.

Most PR professionals know “the vibe” of crisis communications but this isn’t enough. A common mistake is looking to a formula, as if every situation is the same. An example is to advise clients under attack that they must always issue an apology. While this can be the best way of responding, it’s not always. In fact recently a company was attacked by activists on social media over an artwork that turned out to be nothing like what the activists alleged. Yet after clarifying, the company apologised anyway, and removed the artwork.

While I’m not aware of all the details of this particular situation (therefore will decline to over-analyse or criticise), generally speaking, every issue is different and managing them requires instinct and experience. There are key principles to crisis communications but no formula.

I’ve noticed that many in the PR industry not experienced in crisis work are often vocal and critical about how other companies handle major issues and crises. This criticism – often on social media or even in the mainstream media – usually extends to them providing the “solution”. If it was only that simple. These critiques only expose their inexperience in the area.

When we view reputational issues from the outside we have no idea what is happening behind the scenes. I’ve worked with many clients who have endured sustained periods of negative publicity. To the amateur, this is interpreted as the company – or the crisis communications professional advising the client – failing. But it’s easy to be the expert sitting on the sidelines.

Crisis comms professions know that issues are often messy. You are dealing with clients who are emotionally invested in the outcome and who may find it difficult to trust others during a vulnerable time. Sometimes the situation can’t be changed and the client has done nothing wrong yet is still attacked. Often the PR practitioner isn’t told the full story, or clients have internal conflict that makes it more difficult. Situations are evolving and you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know it.

It’s stressful for all involved and some clients won’t listen to your advice, or are receiving conflicting advice. Navigating this takes patience and skill but it also takes instinct that can only come from experience. This is where most general PR consultants with only a small amount of book knowledge fall short.

A stark reality for some clients is also the fact that PR can’t fix everything. An experienced crisis communications professions knows when to be brutally (but respectfully) honest with the client, in order to deal with the underlying problems. An apology is pointless if the client has no intention of changing structures or decisions – or is unable to – that led to the crisis in the first place. An apology can also make things worse if you know that it won’t lead to a better outcome, or if the client has done nothing wrong.

Crisis communications isn’t the ability to make a problem disappear or erase what has happened. It doesn’t mean the client avoids the fire because often by the time we get involved the fire is already raging. The aim is to ensure that the client comes out of the fire with its reputation with key stakeholders as good as it can be. It’s also about ensuring trust can be rebuilt quickly.

Crisis communications is not one size fits all. It takes a cool head and the confidence to make a call, influence decision makers and often to argue your case. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

There are a multitude of responses when an issue arises. An apology can be part of a strategy (humility is always an a important attribute), but there are also times to stand your ground and defend your actions. There are times to say nothing (shout out to the Royal Family at the current time).

 The most important part of a successful strategy for companies needing high quality crisis communications advice is to find the right person or company to assist. Outside advice and perspective is vital but you should look beyond the “services offered” page and find out if the person claiming to handle crisis communications is a genuine specialist in the field – someone who understands more than just the vibe!