Public Relations Crisis Management

January 24, 2018 Lacey Miller

Crafting a public relations crisis management strategy is a bit like installing a smoke detector...you hope you’ll never need it, but you’ll be thankful it’s there when you do. For most PR pros, potentially devastating news isn’t something you deal with every day but being prepared to respond is arguably one of your most important responsibilities. 

The Need for PR Crisis Management

A PR emergency can be self-inflicted (think Volkswagen cheating on EPA tests), or it can be entirely outside of the company’s control. (Can I interest you in a Tide Pod?) No matter what industry you are in or how ethically management behaves, it is possible that your brand will suddenly experience an event that results in bad press, poor reviews, and negative social media mentions. Just a few of the things that can trigger the need for an urgent response are:

  • Criminal or civil legal matters
  • Product defects
  • Supply or inventory issues
  • Accidents and recalls
  • Acquisitions
  • Customer churn
  • Labor relations issues
  • Executive turnover

It may be possible to see some of these coming, but with today’s 24x7 news cycle and ever-present social media connections lousy news travels unbelievably fast, nothing stays secret for long, and people want near real-time reactions from brands.

Measure So That You Can Manage

The first step of crisis response is knowing that there’s a crisis. Setting up Google alerts for your brand isn’t a bad idea, but that kind of monitoring doesn’t give you the insight required to know when something related to the conversation about your brand has changed. The best PR crisis management strategies start with creating baseline measurements for mentions, sentiment, and social engagement. You should know what “normal” looks like so that you can quickly and easily recognize that something has shifted. A spike in coverage might be great news. Perhaps you’ve earned a terrific mention in a high-quality publication, and everyone should be delighted. Or … maybe a customer has been harmed using your product or workers are striking for improved benefits and you’ve got a problem on your hands.


The middle of the disaster is not the time to start PR measurement and analytics. Deploying PR software when things are calm and making sure that you understand exactly what you should be tracking and how to leverage the data is the best way to ensure that you’ll have the information you need when a bad situation materializes.

Create Your Own Crisis Playbook

We have a useful eBook with general tips on preparing for the unexpected. You should also create your own brand-specific PR emergency guide. Among other things, it should answer the following questions:

  • Who will be the key spokespeople?
  • Who are the subject matter experts who may need to help?
  • What will be the channels for communicating with key customers, investors, and other critical external constituencies?
  • What are the guidelines for internal communication and who is responsible for enforcing them?
  • Are there influencers who may be able to mitigate the damage?
  • What are the approval processes for announcements?

Prioritize an Informed Response Over an Immediate One

When news hits the information superhighway these days, it can feel like a wildfire. Given the number of channels people have to talk about your brand and the way that things go viral on social media, it can be tempting to jump in with a response the instant something breaks. Don’t. Your answer isn’t going to slow the spread of news, but it could certainly make it worse if it isn’t well informed and thoughtful.

 

Hopefully, you’ve going monitoring already in place so that you can understand precisely what is being said and by whom. You’ll be able to gauge the potential impact of the story and know if you are facing a moderate annoyance or a full-blown catastrophe. Let the scale of the situation inform your response so that you don’t over or under react. 

Make a list of what you know and what you don’t know about the situation and figure out how to fill in the blanks before you decide how to proceed. It is also OK to issue a placeholder statement, letting people know that you are aware of what has transpired and will have more to say soon.

Show Authentic Empathy and Be Honest


Most of the time a PR crisis means that someone has been hurt (physically or emotionally), disappointed, or worried. The best public relations responses are those that show legitimate empathy for the people involved. This is not the same as accepting responsibility, certainly not in a legal sense, it could be that your company did nothing wrong, but if people were harmed, it is smart to acknowledge it and show compassion.

 

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “the coverup is worse than the crime.” This is very true when it comes to PR crisis management. It’s 2018 and nothing is a secret. You should always assume that relevant facts will come to life and avoid making your reputation worse by adding dishonesty to whatever else has already gone wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to share every detail about the situation with the world, its best to keep to the most relevant facts, but never lie. 

Let the Crisis be a Teacher


Each event will give you some subjective and objective information to analyze. On the subjective side, you will want to ask questions about how the crisis happened, how it was handled and what could be done to prevent and respond better in the future. Are there procedures that could be put in place to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again? Do relations with the community, employees, or other stakeholders need to be improved? Did everyone involved in the response understand and adequately fulfill their responsibilities?  

 

On the objective side, you can measure how the issue impacts mentions of your brand over the long hall. Some crisis will hit hard and fizzle fast, while others will linger and do potentially lasting damage to the brand. Your PR measurement software will help you determine whether a sustained effort to repair your reputation is needed or if a few quick actions will do the trick.

Obviously, the best PR crisis response is to not have the crisis in the first place, but unfortunately, that’s usually out of your hands. What you can do is get the right tools and strategy in place so that when something goes awry, you can jump into the action like a true superhero.

About the Author

Lacey Miller

Passionate about public relations and empowering practitioners, Lacey Miller found her dream job as content marketing manager at TrendKite, where she carries the crown of 'word nerd'. With a background in public relations and technology, she's a great fit with her desire to innovate the industry! You can find her most days writing for PR Forward, PRSA, and other trade publications.

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