how to prepare for a PR crisis, crisis communications responses, crisis management advice

When a public relations crisis strikes is not a question of “if.” It’s a question of “when.” Data breaches, sexual harassment complaints, product malfunctions and recalls, misbehaving CEOs, rebellious employees. The list of potential causes of PR crises goes on and on. Aggressive media inquiries, bait-click headlines, and viral social media sharing can exacerbate even a mild mishap.

PR pros typically point to the rise of social media for prompting corporate crises. That’s not the whole story by any means. PR crises are becoming more common, according to research from McKinsey & Company. Sanjay Kalavar, a senior partner in McKinsey & Company’s Houston office, and Mihir Mysore a partner at that office offer more reasons for the increase in PR crises.

Product supply lines are long and complicated. Products are more complex. A new pickup truck today includes more than 150 million lines of computer code. Companies move faster. They strive to develop products and bring them to market faster. That’s prompted companies to recall products more often. In addition, governments are more willing to penalize companies, prompting dramatically increased regulatory fines.

The McKinsey partners and other experts offer these recommendations.

Be prepared. Preparing a well-documented, comprehensive crisis management plan is more important than ever. A quality PR crisis plan names a crisis response team with an assigned spokesperson and outlines how information will be communicated to internal and external stakeholders and the general public. “Under-preparedness has consequences and helps explain why companies engulfed by a large crisis initially underestimate the ultimate cost by five to ten times,” Kalavar and Mysore warn. Damaged reputation imposes costs, including reduced stock value.

Brainstorm different types of disasters and other problems, and create plans to respond to them. Make sure to circulate it within your organization. Everyone in marketing, PR, and sales should review it and have ready access to it.

“While it’s impossible to prepare for every kind of crisis imaginable, taking a proactive approach to developing a communications plan within your preparedness program can be key to your organization’s reputation and survival,” says Nina Kult at Common Ground Public Relations.

Create a team. Before problems erupt, select a small, high-level group that will have authority to decide how the organization will respond. Ideally, the team will include key executives from main company departments and will be able to reach decision within hours. The team may also include outside crisis management, PR and legal counsel.

Practice the plan. Run PR crisis simulations with your team to test your preparation. “Do not create a plan and put it on the shelf until you really need it. Plan, test, practice, evaluate, re-test, re-evaluate, evolve, etc. Social media changes and evolves so quickly, and you need to evolve with it,” says Rachael Rensink, manager of social marketing strategy and engagement at Delta Air Lines, in O’Dwyer’s. Hospitals run disaster drills; so should corporations, including drills that simulate computer hacking incursions.

Don’t do dumb stuff like breaking the law or trying to circumvent regulations or mistreating customers. Withholding or covering up pertinent information certainly can be classified as “dumb stuff.” Stimulate a corporate culture of caring for employees and customers and the things most everyone really cares about like children and clean water.

Pay attention to repeated criticism. Wells Fargo and Uber could have avoided their PR crises if they had listened to criticism, evaluated it objectively and taken action to correct internal problems. PR and customer service departments probably have the best insights on criticism – one from media, the other directly from customers. Uncovering patterns of criticism is the vital task; put someone in charge of it.

Act quickly. The first 48 hours are most important. When a PR crisis surfaces, immediately drop everything to bring together your organization’s crisis response team. Assess the situation and the damage done. Draw on your internal connections in your organization to investigate the situation. Determine what went wrong and how it happened and if an apology is warranted. Lay out a clear strategy to manage the situation. Appoint a public spokesperson who has received media training and can present the apology and the organization’s message with credibility.

Monitor both traditional and social media. Media monitoring provides essential information before, during and after a crisis. A media monitoring service can alert PR about an emerging crisis by reporting a spike in negative comments. Continually monitor your brand names for news and social media comments. Agree on who’s in charge of monitoring social media, what they are listening for, and when they are listening.

“A social media crisis has information asymmetry. When the company does not know any more than the public about what’s going on … when your plane lands in the Hudson River, and you start seeing Twit Pics of it, that’s information asymmetry – the first sign of a social media crisis,” says Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert.

What the Latest Research Says

Research from the International Public Relations Research Conference offers principles on how organizations can best prevent a PR crisis. PR measurement expert Katie Paine, CEO of Paine Publishing, cites some of the most valuable:

Identify your loudest opponents. Nykredit, a mortgage bank based in Denmark, caused an uproar when it raised monthly mortgage payments for thousands of customers. Researchers from the University of Missouri and East Carolina University showed how the bank used a visual mapping tool to identify the most influential critics. After the first week, research found that 21 key voices drove most of the criticisms.

Other experts note that companies employ a social media measurement tool to find their most influential critic then attempt to mollify them and/or counteract them with brand advocates.

Treat employees well. Companies known for treating employees well fare better during a crisis, according to researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Missouri. If consumers believe companies mistreat employees, they are more likely to criticize the organization on social media and boycott their products.

Recognize the limits of a social media presence. A strong presence on social media increases the brand’s credibility, boosts its reputation, and increases the likelihood that customers believe the brand’s PR message. However, it does little to mitigate anger felt toward the organization during the heat of a crisis.

Tragedies pose risks. Attempts to express sympathy or evoke patriotic feelings can backfire. People may be receptive to messages related to disasters, but they’re likely to think again about buying a brand’s products if they sense a hint of commercialism in the message. To reduce risk of a backlash, stick to high-level public interest messages without mentioning the brand name.

Bottom Line: Brands face greater risks of suffering a PR crisis than ever for many reasons. Preparing a plan to handle a calamity is just as essential as trying to avoid disasters. New research offers helpful insights on how brands can prepare for crises and deal with them when they inevitably occur.

Download the PR Crisis Handbook, a comprehensive guide on preventing and managing PR crises

This article was first published on June 21, 2017, and updated on March 27, 2019.