Claire Maxwell is a freelance book publicist and writer. She has worked for publishers like Canongate Books, Icon Books, Quarto, Hodder & Stoughton and Indigo Press. She writes for publications like ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, The Independent, The Telegraph and more.
What are the kinds of PR crisis that can occur in publishing?
It partly depends how you define a crisis: a scathing review is unfortunate but probably not a crisis. But occasionally, something will happen that demands immediate attention and management: the team might have missed something that later down the line turns out to be problematic, to garner a negative reaction on social media; your author might say something inflammatory or offensive on Twitter or in an interview. How you respond in those instances is key.
How can publicity teams prepare in advance for these kinds of situation?
Firstly, and on a practical level, publicity teams should not be afraid to call out anything that they suspect might become a problem when the book is published, whether that be the content, the cover, the marketing, even the author. It is always better to be prepared. Sensitivity readers are becoming more common in publishing and are hugely beneficial to the whole industry. It might be worth extending that to your publicity and marketing campaigns – are the ways in which you’re promoting the book sensitive?
What are the golden rules for dealing with a publicity crisis on social media?
Don’t ignore it. We’ve all seen examples of a crisis blowing up on social media while the publisher seemingly sits silent. I have seen it behind the scenes too: the hope that it’ll die down, that a statement won’t be necessary. Don’t wait for the anger to build to such a level before you act, make changes and apologise.
How can publishers work with authors to deal with problems that arise from their book or books?
An atmosphere of openness is really key, I think. It’s a publisher’s responsibility to make sure that what they’re publishing is accurate, sensitive, and inoffensive – that should be a given – and if that means having a frank discussion with the author then that’s what needs to happen.
If a situation has already blown up before your team is able to respond, what’s the best way to move forward?
In my experience it’s important to always be willing to admit when you’re wrong. I’ve seen backlashes happen from both inside and outside a publishing house and the situation is resolved far more quickly if all parties involved can apologise and act as quickly as possible. It’s also important as a publicist to look at the best way to address the crisis – you might have media requests coming in and while some might be a good forum, it’s important to consider everyone’s agenda before putting your author in a position that could further aggravate the situation.
Finally, what’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone faced with a publishing PR crisis?
Be humble. It can be easy to react defensively – both for yourself and your colleagues. But looking at where you and your team might have messed up is the best way to move forward and learn, and hopefully become better book publishers in the future.
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