Public relations

How to navigate through last minute PR nightmares

Written by Lynsey Barry

25 October 2019


Your heart skips a beat. Your breathing becomes shallow. For just a brief moment, you’re like a rabbit in the headlights.

Then your survival instincts kick in. You assess the situation, weigh up the options and leap into action.

It could be a scene from a bad horror film, couldn’t it? But in this piece we’re looking at something altogether more real and disconcerting.

We’re looking at those horrible moments all PR people experience at one point or another. That realisation that something has gone or is about to go wrong in the planning for your PR event or running your campaign. And you’re going to be right at the heart of it.

In this blog, we’ll show you what to do to navigate PR manager nightmares and how to cope when things go wrong at the last minute – such as a spokesperson going missing, or a breaking news story overshadowing your message.

Out of control

There’s a reason PR frequently appears toward the top of lists of the most stressful jobs. Imagine what life was like for Sarah Huckerby-Sanders during her time as White House press secretary? I’m not endorsing her in any way, but that’s a job that would be stressful at the best of times, let alone under the Trump administration.

A PR manager not only has to quickly gather the facts and pull them together into an effective statement or story, they also become the public face of the organisation, frequently at times of crisis.

But the vast majority of the time, we’re not in a crisis. Yet stress is still prevalent. Why is this? Well, it’s because a lot of PR work isn’t totally within our control.

Even with the best brief and the most amazing ideas, we know there’s always the chance that something else can scupper our shot at success. It means we can’t rest until the coverage is in the bag, but we often don’t have a say over if, how or when that happens.

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Keeping your PR campaign on track

PR directors and managers spend our days doing everything we can to maximise the chances of success. We’re always looking for opportunities for our clients and hate it when those chances elude us.

The thing is, these issues come with the territory and successful PR people have to roll with the punches and adapt to the changes. Here are a few examples of the kind of last-minute woes that can throw your PR plan off track and what you need to consider to keep your head above water and your campaign on track.

Scenario 1: one of your spokespeople is missing

You’ve got a day of media briefings arranged based on the fact the global CEO and industry figurehead is fronting them with some major news. The CEO is a big draw. They aren’t usually able to come over to the UK but always do a great job with the press when they do.

Then, the day before the meetings are scheduled, they cancel their trip. The whys and wherefores of the decision aren’t clear, but now you have a problem. How do you keep the show on the road when the main attraction won’t be there?

The answer will hopefully be clear from your planning. Ideally, you will have been able to work with an understudy of sorts as part of the preparation anyway. This is good practice as a rule, because you never know when you might need a media spokesperson at short notice.

If not, you need to quickly identify a qualified replacement spokesperson and make sure they are media trained and briefed as soon as possible.

When it comes to dealing with the press, honesty is the best policy. You can’t risk them showing up – taking time out of their schedule – believing they’re meeting the CEO only to arrive and discover that’s no longer the case. They will not appreciate it.

You need to contact the journalists you have arranged those interviews with as soon as possible and explain the change of spokesperson. In doing so, you also need to be able to reassure them that the person they are now going to meet with is amply qualified and relevant to them.

Some journalists may choose to drop out at this point, but more will stick to the original plan and will be grateful for your transparency. And this will minimise any harm to your credibility as a PR agency.

Scenario 2: double-booked venue

The invites have gone out well in advance. The venue is ideally sized and located for your needs. Attendance is looking great.

Then you get a call telling you the venue has been double-booked and no matter how hard you argue against it, you’re the party that has to suffer. Compensation or refunds will have to wait – right now, you’ve got an event to re-organise and that has to take precedence.

First things first, quickly establish if you can shift the date of the event. Obviously, the more time you have in advance the more likely it is that you can do this. But with little time to move things around before the day itself, it’s not likely to be a viable option.

Secondly, scour the area for other appropriate venues. Have any of them had last minute cancellations? Were there others you overlooked in your initial search? Do they have the requisite facilities – including WiFi – for you to run a successful event? If they do, get down there quickly and see it for yourself before booking it.

And last, but by no means least, when you have the full facts you have to communicate it straight away with all the attendees. With enough time, clear written notices of the change will likely suffice. But if time is tight, you need to consider calling people directly to make sure they know things have moved elsewhere.

Scenario 3: the death of a monarch

This isn’t so much a literal example as an illustration of the impact that an unexpected, major development can have on the news agenda. Whether it’s the death of a famous person, a royal engagement or any number of ‘surprise’ occurrences, they can de-rail your chances of securing media coverage in an instant.

So how can you adapt your PR plans in the face of breaking news?

Your first priority should be to stop selling in the story. If you’ve already started that process, stop. You may well find that no coverage comes about as a result of your efforts up to that point. In some respects, that’s the best-case scenario.

If you’re selling something in across multiple countries, take a call on whether the news extends to other markets too. If not, you may want to continue with your media efforts there and revisit your home market at a later date.

With the local sell-in on hold, you then need to consider how and when to push the story again. It may be possible to re-package or re-purpose the materials if no coverage has appeared. But you might find there’s a different angle that becomes more pertinent by pushing things back.

This particular scenario really does highlight the downside to putting all of your eggs in one basket. When it comes to planning your PR strategy, you shouldn’t have a single point of failure. You need to prepare multiple media outreach opportunities. Don’t pin all your hopes on one announcement, or one moment. Make sure you have thought through how to use all the channels and touchpoints at your disposal.

Need help with your PR planning? Get in touch with our experts.