Crisis management earns honor for local PR firms
An Anchorage company that provides student tutoring services got a visit in December 2015 from police officers delivering bad news: one of the employees was suspected of possessing and distributing child pornography.
The tutor also had allegedly engaged in a sexual relationship with a teen minor.
The urge to avoid publicity when a bad situation strikes a company may be a perfectly natural response. But that’s not the advice a good public relations company covering its reputation would recommend, said Kristin Helvey.
Piloting a tutoring company through that public relations nightmare won Helvey Communications and Kathy Day Public Relations the coveted 2017 Public Relations Society of America Silver Anvil Award in July.
Out of 400 entrants, they won in the same category as the PR firm that handled “Changing a City’s Narrative: How Cleveland Leveraged the 2016 RNC to Shift Perceptions from Rust Belt to Revitalization” and “Pulse Tragedy: Orlando Health’s Response to Deadliest Mass murder in U.S. history.”
The Alaskans’ presentation, “When Nightmares Come True: A Crisis Plan,” gained the national spotlight for a couple of reasons. For one, the small, Alaska-grown company didn’t lose its school district clients. For another, their tutoring business increased a documented 53 percent, which gave rise to 44 percent more revenue in spring 2016 over the previous year.
How did that happen?
The employee, Evan Vince Fischer, 35, was later convicted on the charges. Among the charges for child pornography, he was charged with six counts of sexual assault against a 15-year-old girl whom he had tutored in English literature at another charter school.
But before Fischer was arrested, the company, Frontier Tutoring, had little time to prepare for what was to come. Police didn’t want CEO Brian Franklin to alert parents or students. That would disrupt their investigation and tip off the suspect. With days to act, Helvey called on Day, a veteran Alaskan public relations professional with crisis management experience who was on the Rasmuson Foundation team that came up with Pick.Click.Give.
With a budget of only $5,000, the two delved into crisis management practices used by public relations professionals – and invented a few of their own.
“The first step was to better understand the company’s role in the situation, whether the company had a history of issues and to determine if the company should have taken action that they didn’t,” Helvey said.
Background checks, for example. Nothing had surfaced.
Using primary and secondary research practices, the public relations pair delved into all the details they could, not unlike an investigator might do of a company’s past and present dealings.
“We were fortunate to work with a CEO who believed in good communications and right actions,” Helvey said. “Putting your head in the sand doesn’t work. It only degrades trust.”
They found no red flags or prior incidences of inappropriate behavior by the employee. They reviewed hiring and screening practices, and appropriate workplace behavior policies.
Helvey and Day found this was the first major incident for the company. The background check on the employee had turned up no red flags. The company provided tutoring services for the Anchorage School District and used best practices for youth-serving organizations that went above minimum requirements.
“Our goal was to maintain the confidence of clients and partners, to minimize the negative impacts on the company,” Helvey said.
They identified two specific, measurable objectives. One, they wanted to retain 100 percent of the clients in the upcoming quarter. Two, they wanted to keep the tutoring contract with the Anchorage School District, which automatically came up for review due to the investigation.
Helvey and Day also identified four stakeholder groups they would need to communicate to: employees, the parents and students tutored by the employee, the parents of other students who had not been in contact with Fischer, and organizational partners such as the school district and counseling departments.
“Our overall strategy was to deliver fast, transparent communication that would reinforce the trust and loyalty, while disassociating the company from the employee in question,” Helvey said.
The police asked the CEO to hold all communications until the employee arrest was made so as not to interfere with the investigation. The arrest was expected to take place within several days. “Outreach needed to be trigger ready the moment communication clearance was ready,” Helvey said.
The CEO built a good rapport with the case detective, and the crisis team received regular and timely updates on the case.
They also divided their plan to “before arrest” communication and “after arrest” communication to ensure readiness.
By the time of the arrest, on Dec. 15, the company was fully prepared to respond to media questions. Helvey and Day came up with a Frequently Asked Questions sheet. They submitted all statements in writing, and the CEO communicated face-to-face and took calls from parents and others.
Far from sticking his head in the sand, the CEO used the incident to further strengthen controls to include annual employee reorientation and additional steps in new-hire background checks. They also improved interview questions related to flagging inappropriate behaviors and interest based on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidance, Helvey said.
Helvey and Day presented the case multiple times to public relations professionals across the state as a study on the impact of sincere, transparent and timely communications, even when it’s difficult.
Parents emailed comments such as “I am thankful that you are acting swiftly to let us parents be informed of where you stand on this issue.” And “Thank you for your proactive approach…we have recommended you to others with confidence.”
There are a couple takeaways from this particular crisis, Helvey and Day say.
“In general the rules are to respond as quickly as you can even if you only know a little bit,” Day said. “Be sympathetic, genuine and honest. No matter what the situation is, at some point, emphasize what steps you’ve taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
By dealing with a potentially lethal public relations nightmare “off the front,” the damage on the backend is minimized, they say.
Another piece of advice for business owners is to understand what good public relations teams do:
“They have experience handling these types of situations,” Day said. “Hire experience.”
Day said she’s heard company execs say, “I hired this person because he or she used to be a television reporter. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have experience.”
Day, who began her career as a news reporter for public radio in Homer and at Channel 13 in Anchorage, said it takes a lot more than knowing how to put out press releases.
“What public relations firms really want or need is a strategic thinker. There’s a big difference between someone who’s been in the business for less than five years and someone who’s been there more than five,” Day said. “It takes that long to develop analytical skills.”
Helvey said the PR image of “spin doctoring” the news is a common perception, but one that doesn’t credit the professional steps that can be involved in helping a company come to terms with a crisis and react with honesty.
“It’s temping for an organization to want to bury their head in the sand,” Helvey said. “At times they want to point fingers and deny it. I think public relations people are under a lot of pressure from organization leaders and others who just don’t have the clarity at the time to think through the repercussions of doing certain actions.”
Changes in the industry are raising the bar in standards of practice to council organizations to stand up to do the right thing.
“Cases like this I hope will further the discussion about right actions and good that comes from combining high ethical transparency with being straightforward and timely — all those things together can make really good things happen,” Helvey said.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.