11 steps for PR crisis management
Do you get a buzz from PR crisis management? I do, but don’t tell! I understand that panic gets you nowhere, while balance keeps your brand on track. Diffuse the situation, and potentially you can turn a minus into a plus. My 11 steps for handling a PR crisis, walks you through before, during, and after a crisis. Ready?
To help you deal with a PR crisis strategy, download two free crisis management templates. The roadmap you navigate if a crisis strikes, and a checklist in case of emergency. This guide also includes PR crisis examples and steps to help you navigate your way through a crisis.
Every company should be prepared for the inevitable public relations crisis - data breach, executive scandal, negative review, failed event, badly planned marketing campaign. Yep, it happens to us all. Hit by a PR crisis, you’ll need a fast and carefully crafted response. We’re talking damage limitation, folks. It’s about protecting your brand reputation.
You’ll need a PR crisis communication plan and team in place, BEFORE you need them. That’s not to say that when it happens, there’s nothing else to do.
A crisis will be a surprise. How you plan to respond, shouldn't be. You’ll need holding statements, trained spokespeople, social media monitoring, crisis alerts, role play, and more.
Let’s get you locked and loaded...
Table of contents
- What is a PR crisis?
- When is a crisis a crisis?
- Look who’s talking too!
- Which PR crises demand action?
- How to avoid a PR crisis
- 11 steps for dealing with a PR crisis
- What not to do!
The definition of a PR crisis?
An organization or an individual receiving negative, humiliating, damaging publicity.
PR crises are serious. Disruptive. Damaging. The popularity of social media means that a crisis can be spread globally, in an instant.
Trying to stop a crisis going viral online, is akin to herding kittens.
Taco Bell underestimated the power of social media when a video was posted of an employee calling the police when a deaf man tried to order food at a drive-thru. At time of publication, the post had over 1.5M views, and 15K+ comments. Needless to say, the majority are negative. It’s been shared 27K+ times, with the number still rising.
The video was posted by the mother of the victim.
The employee has since been fired and staff are being retrained.
The video was posted on January 2, this year. Let’s take a look at the sentiment for the month, so far.
Quick Search sentiment analysis. Ouch!
For brands, the potential for crises has increased. No longer just the possibility of a natural disaster or a corporate scandal. In this age - where, let’s face it, we’re online all the time - brands have to contend with fake news, cyberattacks, defamatory rumors, hackers.
We’re online. We share and spread our outrage.
How on earth can a brand predict and control a PR crisis?
My two crisis management templates will help you control a crisis and diminish its power.
Not every issue is a crisis…
Before panic sets in, ask yourself:
- Will this issue critically affect my company’s workflow or send the board into a frenzy?
- Will our bottom line be disrupted?
- Will brand reputation be damaged - stakeholders, customers, prospects, industry?
You might think that any of the above would constitute a PR disaster. But, you’d ride them, if they occurred separately. Even a couple of them hitting simultaneously, would be manageable. All three?
Before we talk full-blown crisis, let’s take a step back. Overreacting will heighten a potential issue.
Not every issue is a crisis…
A negative review, a mocking social media post. These aren’t crises. Annoying, certainly. Reacting to them too strongly, can increase the potential for reputational damage. It can turn them into a PR crisis.
To determine the appropriate response, you need to categorize issues. Social media listening will help you recognize an issue that could explode into a PR crisis.
Look. Listen. Learn.
How do consumers currently feel about your brand?
If you can’t answer this question, how will you know if sentiment is shifting? Establish the average volume threshold of negative mentions for your brand with sentiment analysis. If you see a shift towards negativity, consider it a warning. You could be heading into a PR crisis situation.
Don’t stop monitoring. Running sentiment analysis during a crisis will determine how your customers, influencers, prospects, and your industry are reacting. How they’re reacting will carry significant weight and if negative, could harm your brand. Targeted responses would work well.
There are three levels of PR crises that would require a swift and well-planned response from you:
These have the potential to become a disaster. Your brand will struggle to walk away unscathed.
- Product recall - defective and/or unsafe goods.
- Workplace harassment - intimidating, offensive, abusive, discriminating behavior.
- Corporate impropriety - deception, theft, fraud, negligence, corruption, poor customer service.
You’ll face negative media mentions across the board - press, social media, news channels, tv and radio. Your response has to be multichannel. Post your apology and explanation on your website, across social media, press and broadcast.
PR crisis management plan - no question.
Less scary, but don’t ignore. Customer complaints and criticisms can be dealt with quickly, before they escalate into a disaster. Depending on where the comment appeared, determines whether the issue can be handled one-to-one or publicly.
Monitor with social listening to catch early and respond quickly.
If one of your competitors or related industries experiences a crisis, it could tarnish your brand reputation. By association. The solution is competitive intelligence. You’re already monitoring your social media channels - I hope - so monitor your competitors too. If you get a sniff of a potential issue, post a statement fast. Put distance between your brand and this looming crisis.
Track your competitors - listen to the chatter.
You can’t. However, you can minimize the risk and deal with a PR crisis.
There are things you can look out for that if caught early enough, can be dealt with.
Implement rules for content
Social media messages, blog posts, press releases, interviews, etc. Nothing should be released that hasn’t been checked and approved. Nothing.
Establish guidelines for everything you post.
- Social media guidelines will help your brand avoid blunders. They need to be flexible, to allow for changes. These social best practices will guide your team, your company voice, the language you use. Guidelines will give context to your social media strategy.
- A social media policy is stricter. Your team should follow the policy, no question. A comprehensive policy will help you avoid legal issues and security problems. It’ll explain how your team should behave online. It’ll protect your brand’s reputation.
Proof, and proof again
You’re not just looking for spelling mistakes. You’re checking for leaks of company information and inappropriate content that will offend. Your pr crisis management social media plan should protect against anything that could potential rock the boat.
Don’t be offensive!
How many times have you seen brands overstepping the mark with their messaging? It’s quite simple. Involve other people and ask their opinion? If you’re in any doubt. Pull it.
Who in their right mind…
BTW - Charles is a New York Times columnist with 494K followers!
Lose the fat fingers!
Black Friday **** Need copy and link****— McDonald's (@McDonaldsCorp) November 24, 2017
The tweet remained for several hours, without further enlightenment.
McDonald’s tried to dig itself out of a hole. Failing miserably when Wendy’s jumped onboard!
When the tweets are as broken as the ice cream machine. https://t.co/esdndK1iFm— Wendy's (@Wendys) November 24, 2017
Wendy’s wiped the smile off Ronald’s face.
Don’t be stupid!
The CEO of PepsiCo - parent company of Doritos - claimed that women “don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth.”
Hello, have we met?
Worth pointing out that the PepsiCo CEO is a WOMAN!
Fair play to Doritos. The brand killed this ridiculous product suggestion.
We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.— Doritos (@Doritos) February 6, 2018
But, not without a heap of well-deserved ridiculing.
These muted handbag snacks never saw the light of day.
Always expect the unexpected
The unpredictability of a PR crisis makes it difficult to be prepared. Would you have seen these coming?
Unpredictable management behavior
The CEO’s increasingly erratic behavior peaked, with a pot and whisky fueled interview, ONLINE. It went viral. OF COURSE. Stocks plummeted. Key executives quit.
Stone me, Musk pulled a blinder!
I’ll remind you at this point that what you don’t want to go viral… WILL GO VIRAL!
Fries and rats
Fries and a rat with your burger?
No joke. Burger King in Delaware introduced a new special to its menu. One eagle-eyed customer caught the product launch on video and posted it online, where it was shared, again, and again, and again.
More haste, less speed
Yes, time is of the essence. But, don’t rush in with your eyes closed. You’ll go smack into the first obstacle you come across.
Take a breath!
React emotionally and too quickly, and you’ll make the situation worse.
Most companies - probs all - will face a PR crisis at some point - it’s kinda inevitable. From bad reviews to a management scandal, a negative situation will have a powerful impact on your brand’s reputation.
You’ll make mistakes. You won’t be perfect. But you must be human. You must be honorable. Here are the steps you need to take that’ll get you to the end of the tightrope, without plunging into the abyss.
There are three stages of a PR crisis…
The first and third, last forever. The second... feels like it lasts forever.
Forever monitor. Forever listen. Forever learn.
Should you plan for something you don’t want to happen?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
With your PR crisis plan in place, you and your team will save time, confusion, and stress. When time is of the essence, you can’t afford to waste time. Trying to find the CEO’s mobile number, unable to post on social because the community manager is on holiday and no one knows the credentials.
You see where I’m coming from?
Avoid social media blunders
You need to establish a social media protocol in your PR crisis comms plan.
Scheduling social media content makes life easier. In the event of a PR crisis, be sensitive to the situation. Are those planned social posts appropriate? Clear your social calendar and restrict to messages addressing the crisis. Post human responses to your audience’s comments.
Don’t lose your cool. Getting angry or defensive won’t do you any favors.
Create a crisis response team
A mishandled crisis is often caused by a leader going rogue. Thinking they can deal with the situation without working with their team.
If that’s you, listen to me. You will make things worse. You will be blamed. Your brand will suffer. Up to you.
Build a PR crisis response team and listen to it. Make it diverse. Why? Because your audience is diverse - different races, genders, ages, perspectives, politics, etc.
Run your crisis response messages past them.
Tony in accounts thinks the message is a winner. Dave in IT can’t relate to it. Steve in sales has scheduled a meeting with HR. Pete in operations hasn’t got a clue.
A diverse team will give you different perspectives. Could your messages be misinterpreted? Will they fuel the crisis fire? What works for some, may offend or baffle others.
I would suggest you test all future communication with them - marketing campaigns, press releases, posts, etc. - using them like a focus group to provide feedback.
Your PR crisis response team...
- List in order of priority, who should be notified when a crisis strikes. This will depend on the level of severity. Don’t start passing all negative tweets to your CEO. You’ll soon regret it.
- Ideally, your CEO should lead your crisis team, along with your head of PR and legal. Depending on the nature of the crisis, you’ll need people with knowledge related to the current crisis.
- Establish a chain of command and an approval process - CEO, marketing manager, legal, HR, etc.
- Before a crisis strikes, nominate who will speak on behalf of your company - your media spokesperson. Reacting quickly and speaking with one voice is critical, as multiple voices will confuse and possibly exacerbate the situation.
- Who is responsible for communication? Your marketing team has to be involved - social media messages, press releases, blog posts, etc. Depending on the type of crisis, all comms should be passed by your CEO, legal team, HR.
Nominate and train your spokespeople
Your PR crisis response team should be made up of approved and trained team members. Assigning a person for each channel of communication may be the best way. You might have a great CEO - team leader, knowledgeable, trustworthy - who’s terrible on TV.
Your spokespeople must have:
- Skills that fit. Online comms? Good spelling would be an asset. On camera? Being camera shy isn’t going to work.
- Level of authority. The nature of the crisis will dictate the level of authority required. National disaster, loss of life - demands your CEO at the helm. Along with external communicators - TV, public meetings, radio, press - you’ll need someone internally to update the team.
- Appropriate training. This is about being prepared, ready to respond. This isn’t a marketing opportunity. It’s about protecting your reputation. Ensure your spokespeople are fully up to speed.
Create your PR crisis management plan
When a crisis hits, you’ll be flooded with requests for information. To show that you’re in control of the situation, you have to be ready. This is when your crisis communication plan will come into its own. It should contain:
- A checklist of what needs to be done - it’s easy to miss steps when everyone’s running around like headless chickens.
- Contact details of key people - aaargh… the head of support is on holiday and I don’t have the deputy’s mobile number.
- Who you gonna call? Experts, friendly journalists, influencers, lawyers.
- Draft messages - templates for press releases, social media posts, interview Q&As, etc.
To draw up a dummy-plan, brainstorm with your PR crisis team. Get feedback from customer-facing teams - support, product, sales, legal, etc. Discuss all possible crises that could hit.
Yes, some are hard to predict, or admit to...
“Our product is perfect in every way. A product recall is not going to happen.”
If you can’t be brutally honest, we may as well stop now.
Some potential crisis situations are easy to predict - mass redundancies, buying out a competitor, a firing at C-level - yikes!
Brainstorming brings benefits...
- You might discover a potential crisis can be resolved before it hits, by changing an existing process.
- Responses can be written, giving you have a head start if/when a real PR crisis strikes.
During a PR crisis - listen, identify, review, respond.
Simulate potential crisis situations and practice, practice, practice your response.
Depending on your industry, some crises are easier to predict. For instance, the food industry would be wise to consider food poisoning, rodent infestation, severed thumb in packaged food.
Okay, that last one is probs not on your list of predictions. But, you get where I’m coming from.
With your list of potential crises, demonstrate how you’ll tackle them. Messaging, media responses, interviews, press releases. Your communication templates can then be customized to fit future crisis situations.
Create holding statement templates
You can’t write messages to deal with a crisis, before it strikes. But, holding statements can be created to cover predicted crises. These will also provide templates that can be adapted to fit unpredicted crises.
For instance, an airline hit by a natural disaster. Without facts, official messages should be restricted. But a holding statement could be issued…
“We’ve implemented our crisis response plan, which prioritizes the safety of our passengers and team. Additional details will be posted on our website and social channels as soon as possible.”
Review your holding statements regularly. Update and add new ones, when relevant.
Comms and intelligence
If you want to be alerted to early warning signs of possible PR issues, you have to be listening. Make a list of key things to monitor - your brand, trending topics, key personnel, influencers, hashtags, products, competitors, industry news.
We’ve moved on from sending a fax. Phew!
Today, we’ve got multiple phone numbers and email addresses. We send text and instant messages. Then there’s social media. It’s the fastest and most efficient way to communicate with your audience.
If you’re not using social media as part of your marketing strategy - seriously?!! - you should be. In this day and age, when a crisis strikes it strikes BIG on social. If you’re not there, you've already lost control.
I refer back to my herding kittens reference.
Choose your comms channels before a crisis situation hits. Remember, we use multiple channels. Some people favor email, but not everyone. Maybe a text message, but it might be ignored until later. Not everyone lives on social media. Multiple, will catch more.
You must monitor what’s being said about you so you can identify - catch a negative trend - and respond. This will include social media, the press, review sites, blog posts, employees, customers, influencers, competitors, etc.
During a crisis, monitoring feedback will help you modify your response strategy.
A monitoring system isn’t just for a crisis situation. A good social listening strategy will not only identify negative trends, it will catch positive user-generated content, product feedback, audience sentiment, trending topics, etc. Social data crucial to creating your marketing and communication strategy and messaging.
PR crisis tools
Talkwalker Alerts is a free tool - similar to Google Alerts, but more efficient - that tracks online mentions and tweets, so you’re notified immediately if any of your keywords or phrases are found.
It will hunt down negative comments so you can catch them before they go viral and damage your brand reputation. You’ll receive alerts of mentions from news feeds, blogs, forums, and Twitter.
We currently deliver 700,000+ Talkwalker Alerts to 500,000+ inboxes every day.
You can set up an alert in 10 seconds - enter keyword, language, frequency, and result type.
Search for your brand, products, keywords, key personnel, competitors, industry news.
Social media dramatically changed marketing. We’re connected instantly and constantly. When a brand makes a mistake, it goes viral before you can say,
“I should've used using social listening.”
Take a look at Talkwalker's virality map in action.
Talkwalker virality map - how an article about plastic particles in bottled water,
spread across traditional and new media.
As consumers using social media, we expect an instant response to a support question. Personalized messages. Brands to listen.
With all of us meeting up online, sharing our opinions, complaints, praise, frustrations, the arrival of artificial intelligence was timely.
AI brings the ability to identify, listen, and analyze heaps of social data. This gives brands the power to protect their reputation, manage a crisis, target their communication. Talkwalker’s AI Engine can find patterns in social media communication and identify the sentiment behind it. This data will alert your crisis response team to any oncoming storm, so action can be taken immediately.
Using a social listening tool will bring a new level of insight enabling you to protect and enhance your brand reputation.
You’ll even be able to find influencers to champion your cause. Use a dedicated online platform like Talkwalker’s Influencer One to identify influencers that will support your brand during a PR crisis.
The Search Wizard will find them based on keyword mentions, bio topics, reach, handle, and more. While the Query Search refines your search with Boolean queries.
Talkwalker’s Influencer One - connects teams, influencers, campaigns.
Identify influencers and brand ambassadors
These guys aren’t only useful for marketing campaigns and product launches, they’re also great for swaying opinion during a crisis. The nature of the crisis will determine which individuals you should approach.
Get the facts before you speak
I know, everyone is panicking. Everyone wants action, answers. You have to remain calm. Follow your crisis procedure. Don’t speak until you have all the facts.
Keep it factual. Never speculate. Always apologize.
Accept responsibility and apologize
Acknowledge your mistake, say sorry, and take responsibility. Make it genuine, sensitive, human. Be honest. Be vulnerable.
Don’t be scared to apologize. It’s the right thing to do and will quickly change the dynamic of the situation.
Always tell the truth
If you hide your mistakes, you’ll be found out. Your brand reputation and value will be damaged. Be transparent. Consumers buy from companies that they trust. That they believe in.
If you deny a negative situation, dismiss the issue, blame others - you’ll make things so much worse when the truth comes out. And it will.
Tell people what you’re going to do to rectify the situation, and how you’ll avoid it happening again.
Build your PR crisis messages
With all the facts at your fingertips, you can frame your response. Find the most transparent and genuine way to tackle the situation. What happened. What you’ll do to solve it. What you’ll do in the future. This is where the role of PR in crisis management becomes clear.
Be open, be honest
The sooner you communicate your apology, explanation, and solution, the sooner people will stop trashing your brand.
Don’t offer false promises
This will make the situation worse. Always respect the facts. There are people out there that could know more than you do. The media, for instance.
When Starbucks faced a PR crisis - two black men waiting for a business meeting in a Philadelphia branch - the brand acted immediately. All 8,000 US branches were closed for staff training. The CEO published a statement of apology and the social media team addressed online comments.
@Starbucks The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing. pic.twitter.com/0U4Pzs55Ci— Melissa DePino (@missydepino) April 12, 2018
Fast reaction to a crisis that should never have occurred.
It’s not all about maintaining the value of your stock. Yes, ensuring your business survives is YOUR priority. But for those hit by the crisis - the general public, your employees - less so.
Don’t flood with messages
Three to four is more than enough, and adapt them according to which channel you’re going to post on. For instance, a tweet would contain a link to your website statement.
People have to understand what's happened and what they need to do. Don’t panic them. Show that you acknowledge that there is a crisis, explain your plan is what you’re going to do to avoid future incidents.
Channels of distribution
This will depend on your usual corporate positioning and overall communications. The channels that work best for your brand when talking to your audience - blog, social media, TV, press, etc. Take into account the different characteristics of each.
- Social media involves conversation. Be ready to talk and control your messages.
- Press releases broadcast globally and are readily picked-up by agencies.
- Blog posts give you greater control, plus you’re talking with your company voice.
- Television needs experience, training, and an agreed script. Great for talking to a wider audience.
Social media is awesome! We have a voice, a loud voice. We can enthuse, complain, discuss, share. This freedom of expression scares some brands. They’re reticent. They hold back. They ignore.
Unfortunately, consumers don’t care whether brands are there or not. If they’re going to complain, they will. This means that brands have to monitor and be prepared to jump onboard. Post messages and respond to comments. Have a presence.
After the crisis
Monitor. Update. Analyze. Learn.
Your messages are out there. Being read. Being ignored. Being commented on. You have to continue monitoring the situation.
Is the PR crisis still a crisis?
It can take time for things to return to normal. It could also start up again. You have to be ready if asked, to give more statements, interviews, another press release, answers on social.
How’s your brand reputation, following the PR crisis?
Use sentiment analysis to find out how consumers feel about what happened, your response, the current situation.
Getting hit by a PR crisis is devastating. However, every cloud has a silver lining. You’ll learn from the experience. Whether it’s avoiding future crises, tackling issues, improvements to company operations, better products.
- How did your team manage the PR crisis situation?
- What needs to be improved in your crisis plan?
- What should be changed to avoid it happening again?
- How will you recover your credibility, repair your reputation?
Okay, I’ve told you what you should do. Here’s a list of what you should avoid...
Being an ostrich
You can’t pretend it’s not happening
A knee-jerk reaction
- Take a breath
- Don’t react to false rumors about your brand
- Don’t blame others
- Don’t respond negatively
- Put emotions on the back burner
No, no, no. You’re not an actor being hounded by the paparazzi. No comment won’t hold water.
Being unable to answer a question is damning in a PR crisis. It makes you look guilty, unprepared. Often, arrogant. I’m not suggesting you make something up. That’s even worse. Be honest. Admit you don’t have sufficient information to respond. That you’ll issue an update as soon as possible.
Responding too quickly or too slowly
It’s all in the timing. Don’t give a response before you have all the facts. You’re gonna look pretty stupid if you have to retract earlier statements. Delaying a response will give the impression that you don’t care that much. It’s a fine line.
Picking the scab
People move on. Another crisis comes along and suddenly you’re no longer making headlines. Everyday business must continue. You have a brand to market, a product to sell.
Be prepared. “It won’t happen” is shortsighted, naive, pure fantasy.
A PR crisis need not be a disaster. You can even win plaudits for how you respond, and it can help drive necessary change and improvements to your working methods.
Remember: get ready, respond, reflect.