When Should You Use Rapid Response in Communications Programs?

Rapid response is a critical tactic in any strong PR program. Offering reporters reactions to breaking news not only helps secure coverage – particularly with much-coveted business press – it also helps form relationships with reporters and positions company spokespeople as true thought leaders.

At SHIFT, every team member shares the responsibility of scanning the news throughout the day and looking for opportunities to insert our clients into the current news agenda. This approach has helped teams secure hundreds, if not a thousand, articles every year for our clients.

But not everything requires a response.  And convincing stakeholders that discretion is a virtue during difficult times can be a challenge, especially when they have experienced the thrill of seeing their name in lights or the disappointment of competitors taking the spotlight.

Consider when we’ve experienced tragedy at a global scale, like mass shootings, natural disasters or widespread sickness. Amazingly, it is during these times that we often counsel clients to simply walk away.  Depending on who your client is and what they can say, commenting on Dell’s acquisition of EMC is one thing.  But capitalizing on tragedy and proactively telling a reporter how a company’s software product might have saved lives in a tragic situation is another. And shouldn’t happen – ever.

Now, there may be some companies that have a valid response. We’ve all seen experts on CNN offering insight into what might be happening during a shooting or offering to Monday morning quarterback. However, it’s safe to say that those experts more than likely have a relationship with producers and have been called upon to comment before. It’s also safe to say that the average B2B or B2C company doesn’t have this credibility and trying to manufacture it in a pitch is a lethal risk.

Most of the time, our teams alert clients to breaking news and offer counsel on how the company can and should comment. In times of tragedy, it’s the other way around. When we do receive a call from a client wanting to provide comment during a tragic or sensitive situation, we push back and test that credibility. It is important to note that this is the same exercise used for crafting rapid response commentary that might be about malware, an industry acquisition or a new product from Apple. However, it can easily shed light on the fact that the client and team should tread carefully when lives have been lost. A sample of questions we ask include:

Does the organization have a comment that is not at all related to the company or product?

Like any rapid response – those tied to a tragedy or simple industry news – comments shouldn’t include marketing messages, a product mention or company reference. Also, the commentary shouldn’t be generic – if you read the comment and it could be applied to any other situation, it won’t work. It should be an opinion or insight that is 100% specific to the breaking news and contain information that no one else has shared with or been able to provide to the media.

Does the spokesperson have the credibility to provide that commentary?

What is the spokesperson’s role at the company?  If the comment is a reaction to a personal safety issue (like a shooting), does the spokesperson currently work in protection, the military or law enforcement?  What other background credentials does he or she have that directly align with the situation at hand? It is important to note that valid credentials do not include how long the spokesperson has been with the organization or how many products have been sold!

Does the organization have unique, inside knowledge of the situation that can be shared publicly? 

Offering the media a regurgitated comment on what the public already knows is rarely worth a rapid response and that is especially true during a tragedy. Frankly, in the 24-hour news cycle, this is extremely difficult to provide when it comes to significant, attention-grabbing news and is a great way to gut check any rapid response.

Does the company (and/or team) have a strong relationship with a producer or reporter?

In times of tragedy, we define “strong relationship” as one in which the company has spoken with the reporter/producer more than three times before on a similar subject and the producer/reporter has contacted the spokesperson directly or the team will receive an instant response from the producer or reporter when pitched (i.e. the team can text, Gchat or call the reporter’s cell phone).

Naturally, if the answer is no to any of the questions above (or even portions of the question), it doesn’t past the test.  After this exercise, it’s always good to draft the comment or messaging and then run through the checklist again. It the brand doesn’t have the credibility to comment, it becomes very clear and the team should strongly advise against it.

No one likes people or companies that exploit a tragedy for their own gain.  As communications professionals, we’ve seen countless examples of reporters publicly blasting PR pros or companies for jumping on lives lost to make a buck. The reputational risk for the PR team and the brand far exceeds the benefit of possibly being quoted in an article. In those cases, we counsel clients to watch the news, hug their family and ensure their employees are safe and sound.

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