PR Amid Unrest: Should You Engage?

Jan 12, 2021 Beth Monaghan

Following the violence at the Capitol last week, external communications are complicated. Organizations are wondering how to handle it if employees were involved. They are considering whether they should put out statements regarding their position. And they are wondering if they should postpone proactive PR campaigns.

First, we need to look at what’s happening. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have banned the president from using their platforms due to content policy violations. Twitter’s statement is here, and Facebook’s is here. Many had flocked to the alternative social media platform, Parler, until Apple and Google demanded that it implement moderation to eliminate posts that incite violence. Then Amazon Web Services (AWS) stopped hosting Parler, which is currently offline and is planning to sue Amazon. Social media has a long history of mis-information problems and these events will only amplify this issue.

On the media side, journalists have become targets and face threats of violence. They have my deep gratitude. At Inkhouse, we work with the media every single day, and their courage, integrity and hard work has never been more critical. This Politico play-by-play from reporters who were stuck in the Capitol during the riot provides a first-hand look at what they faced. Among them was Olivia Beavers, a Congressional reporter, who tweeted this screenshot from Parler before the network was taken down:

Continued unrest is predicted in Washington, D.C., and across all fifty state capitals, according to an FBI alert. It will consume a great deal of the media’s attention and concern leading up to the inauguration on January 20. This includes non-political reporters, as the tech media will be following the social media and big tech backlash stories closely. 

What does this mean for external communications? A tweet earlier this week read: “2016: Maybe it won’t be that bad. 2021: the Axe Body Spray Corporation stands firmly against the attempted overthrow of the US government.” That’s where we are. Before you issue a press statement, comment on an employee’s involvement, or post reactions on social media, consider the following:

  • Your organizational values. Weigh your desire to respond with your values. Would issuing a statement align? If yes, does the content of your statement map to them? Values become real when they are lived.
  • Your audiences. What do they care about? Are you part of big tech and therefore need to have a position on anti-trust versus private companies’ rights to establish codes of conduct? Are you a cloud hosting provider that Parler might approach? Do you work in social media or the press and need to know your stance on free speech versus hate speech? Do you work at a firm that deals with constitutional law and know something that could inform this national conversation? Do you donate to political campaigns and need to decide what you will say publicly? Do you have a responsibility to your employees to speak up?
  • The law. In times like these we recommend walking in lock-step with your legal team regarding public comments, especially those regarding employment law and first amendment issues.  
  • Facts. Regardless of the type of information you disseminate: make sure you have the facts. Who are you retweeting? Where does your data come from? Where does your credibility come from? The bar is, and will be, higher now.
  • Timing. If you’re planning a big announcement in the coming week, you should consider postponing it until your audiences have space to hear it and reporters have time to write about it. You only get to launch once.
  • Potential crises. Did an employee attend the violence at the Capitol? Could a reporter or anyone on social media find them in photos? Be prepared. There is a hunt for people involved and the only way to be ready for a crisis is to plan in advance
  • Your own state of mind. Are you reacting or responding? This is one of those times to write the response, sit with it, and see how you feel a day later. What is your appetite for arguing with contrarian voices on social media? Does that serve your organization’s purpose, or your purpose, or neither? 

The bottom line: be prepared for potential crises, and enter intentionally into controversial public conversations. In the coming months, Inkhouse will embark on a blog series regarding facts and truth. We’ll cover how the media check facts and maintain impartiality. And we’ll look at how to spot fake sources on social media, and discuss the difference between Op-eds and reporting. For now, I’ll leave you with a link to the media’s code of ethics, the first of which is to seek truth and report on it. And the PR industry’s code of conduct is here as well.

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Topics: Public Relations, crisis management, Strategic Communications, Corporate Communications, Capitol violence
Beth Monaghan

Since the early days working around her kitchen table, Beth has grown Inkhouse into one of the top independent PR agencies in the country. She’s been named a Top Woman in PR by PR News, a Top 25 Innovator by PRovoke, and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Beth designed Inkhouse’s signature Storytelling Workshop to mirror the literary hero’s journey and to unearth the emotional connections that bind an audience to a brand or idea. She also uses narratives to build Inkhouse’s culture, most recently through two books of employee essays, “Hindsight 2020” and “Aren’t We Lucky?”

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