Inside the Profession

Team Crisis Communications

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Public relations – especially within the sports world – involves many different aspects.  It consists of writing releases, statistical work, servicing the media and pitching story ideas, among others. It is all-encompassing, with the job functions endless. It is one of the few areas of a professional sports organization that has dual roles, in that it serves both the sports and business sides. The one big element which is incorporated in PR, regardless of the specific industry is crisis management and communications.

While all of the other facets are extremely important in their own way, and they each contribute to the advancement of the organization for which you are working, crisis PR is something that can’t be taught but only experienced.

In fact, when many of us are learning about or getting our starts in the business, it’s not something which we are taught or think about. We are so immersed in becoming good writers, researching statistical projects and polishing our speaking skills, that oftentimes this aspect gets overlooked. And it’s not uncommon.

In fact, as a former head of pro sports team PR department, you are always interested in discerning how a particular organization handles crisis situations. While observing from afar is good in that it makes you think and plan out how you might do things if you were immersed in that role, you also have to take into account that you don’t have all the information that those inside the organization do and you don’t know how the people inside the organization are responding to any counsel given by the PR people.

If you are in sports – college or professional – long enough you are going to encounter your share of these types of situations. And while you certainly might not be fully involved with the inner-workings of crisis situations at the outset, take good notes from your direct and indirect superiors who are involved in the process, and ask a lot of good questions. Because how you approach and handle crisis situations can ultimately define you more than anything else you ever do as a PR professional – whether it is sports or any other field.

There are many keys to performing as flawlessly under the pressure of crisis situations as you do when you are preparing a release or pitching a story idea.

The following are some top line keys to guiding you through many of these circumstances:

HAVE A PLAN — This is a must no matter what company you are with, and all companies typically have one. It should include such things as chain of command, a communications “tree” and messaging – both internal and external. You should try and replicate as closely as possible as many of the crisis situations that can be anticipated. And don’t put together this plan in a vacuum. Seek counsel of others and certainly solicit ideas and final approval from your superiors. Not only is it important to have a comprehensive plan, but it is just as imperative that every key person in the organization is familiar with it.

KEEP COMPOSURE — While crisis situations can definitely create stress, it’s something that can’t be evident in the way you carry yourself during these times. Internally, people will look to the PR people to gauge the true level of a particular crisis. If they see you unraveling, it doesn’t exactly exude a great deal of confidence.  Externally, you are the face of the organization, and media and others will pick up on little things in your demeanor. Remember – keeping your composure will allow you to be successful in making critical decisions. Also something worth remembering is that when you are addressing the media or others, it’s not just what you say which will resonate but also how you say it. A serious situation calls for an equally serious tone when speaking.  Save the jokes and jocularity for another time.

REMAIN CONSISTENT — If you have been in the business long enough, you should have some excellent relationships with the media who cover your team. Although faced with a crisis, this is by no means the time to treat them any differently. In fact, your approach to them in crisis moments should be the same as it is at any other time. It doesn’t mean that every bit of information needs to be provided or shared depending on the level of sensitivity, but it is important to be as responsive as what you have always been. Hiding at a time like this can, not just adversely affect your credibility, but it can ruin many of the relationships that you have spent years building.

KNOW WHO YOU’RE DEALING WITH — This is especially true in the sports world, because a times of crisis oftentimes will bring out media with whom you are not used to encountering. This means you will be fielding calls from or greeting in-person news people who might approach their jobs differently than sports reporters. News reporters, especially those of the investigative type, tend to ask the “tougher” question and at times can be unrelenting, asking the same question five different ways.  This is their job. In addition, not only might there not be that familiarity factor, but they also will probably not be all that in-tuned to sports in general or your team specifically. Be patient with them and don’t lose your cool.  Use it as an opportunity to educate and enlighten them. Again, demeanor is everything in times like this.

GAUGE THE TEMPERATURE – What I mean by this is that it is always good to get a feeling for the external landscape and the way your organization is being viewed by others. You can certainly do this through social media channels, but it is probably more effective to have that “go to” contact in the media who will give you an honest opinion – an ombudsman of sorts. That’s why relationship-building is so important to effective PR. Make sure you have that trusted person who, not only can fill you in on what is being said and tip you off to any information that might come out, but sometimes also help you in navigating the mucky waters.

KEEP YOUR SUPERIORS APPRISED – Regular contact should be made with your superiors and other key people in your organization. Crisis situations often last more than one day, necessitating frequent updates on your part. Utilize all of your contacts – media and otherwise – to help obtain as much information as possible. As previously mentioned, hiding from the media can do irreparable damage to your reputation. The ramifications of going silent with your bosses can be far greater.

HAVE DESIGNATED SPOKESPEOPLE – A part of your plan should include who the designated spokesperson(s) is during a time of crisis. Too many people talking often leads to muddled messages.  Certainly the situation will dictate who that person is, but the fewer the better. The other thing that is vital is to tell everyone who are not the designated spokespersons to not comment on the situation, no matter what company they are in, even if it is not the media. In today’s day and age, everyone is theoretically in the media.

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS, NOT ALL OF THE QUESTIONS – In a crisis situation there are certain things you need to know, while there is some information that, for your purposes, you are better off not knowing. You never want to be put in a position where you have to lie. So whether it’s your or your direct reports, there are times where not knowing a piece of information can be more beneficial than detrimental. Not to say this should be a regular part of your repertoire or a tactic that is even used that often, but sometimes less is more. Not answering everything or being vague with the media is one thing.  Lying is another and can do severe damage to your reputation. So don’t always fret when you do not know everything, and don’t always look to have ALL of the information.

Neal Gulkis has been the Director of Communications at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2014 which hosts NASCAR’s championship races each November.  Before that, he worked in team PR in the NFL for 25 years with the Saints (1988-96), Dolphins (1997-2008) and Browns (2009-13).  He was a member of the NFL PR staff for eight Super Bowls and eight AFC Championship Games.

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Neal Gulkis


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