Are you prepared for a PR crisis? Whether it’s a product recall, staff injury becoming public news or something else entirely, a PR crisis can happen to any business. Businesses of all shapes and sizes can fall victim to a PR crisis at any time.
So often, these events come as a complete surprise. But you can guard against them by putting in place a PR crisis plan before they happen – and reacting quickly if your business is struck with bad publicity.
Here’s how to put your plan together, what to remember and how you can access specialist support.
What is a PR Crisis?
A PR crisis is a negative story about your brand that threatens the reputation of your organisation, causes reputational damage, or negatively impacts sales or stock value.
A crisis could be triggered by an accident, a serious error, or an inappropriate action. It could be natural—an earthquake or a flood. It could be man-made—for example, a product recall. Or it could be an act of terrorism.
A PR crisis can destroy a reputation in an instant, so it’s crucial to have a plan in place.
What is a PR Crisis Plan?
In today’s world, a negative story about your brand or organisation could go viral in an instant. Your brand could be dragged through the mud. Your employees and stakeholders could be made to look incompetent or immoral. Your customers could make their displeasure known on your Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Trying to control a crisis is almost impossible. But you can plan for it by creating a PR Crisis Plan. This is similar to an Emergency Response Plan, but instead of focusing on natural disasters, it focuses on public relations disasters. By having a plan in place, you can prepare well in advance for any potential PR crisis that might rock your brand or organization.
It’s important to note that no two PR Crisis Plans are alike, because every crisis is different. The same goes for your team: the people who will execute your plan should be the same ones who develop it, so they understand its purpose and know how to execute accordingly. For this reason, it’s important to have a diverse group of staff members involved in the development of your PR Crisis Plan.
What is Consumer Sentiment?
What is the current perception of your brand among consumers?
Make sure to observe the most up-to-date consumer sentiment towards your brand. As a company, you want to be able to respond quickly and effectively with an appropriate plan.
You can do this by using tools that track keywords related to your brand and monitor consumer behaviour and sentiment on the web. This is especially important in times of crisis or if you have a relatively new product or brand, as it will allow you to identify any changes in consumer sentiment immediately.
Why Do You Need a PR Crisis Plan?
The purpose of a PR Crisis Plan is to help you make quick and effective decisions when faced with negative publicity from a wide range of sources, including customer complaints, faulty products, product recalls and corporate scandals.
When the stakes are high and your reputation is on the line, you need an action plan to keep your business out of the headlines. With a solid plan in place – and the ability to act quickly and decisively – you’ll be able to weather the storm and emerge stronger than ever.
When Should You Set Up a PR Crisis Plan?
Before you can plan how to respond to a crisis you have to know what constitutes a crisis and then tailor your plan accordingly.
When something goes wrong, it’s up to you to keep your head and get control of the situation.
Trying to hide and hoping the issue will blow over is the worst possible strategy because it never does. Instead, prepare a thorough and honest plan for responding to three levels of PR crises:
● A minor crisis
An event that gives your company a black eye but doesn’t threaten its survival. For example, a customer gets angry about an error in billing or service and posts a complaint on Facebook or Twitter.
● An intermediate crisis
Something that could seriously damage your business but also has the potential to be resolved favourably if you respond correctly. For example, an employee leaks damaging information about your company.
● A major crisis
Something that puts your business at risk of being destroyed or driven out of business entirely. For example:
- A lawsuit alleging dangerous product defects.
- Claims of sexual harassment by an employee might trigger this response plan.
- Corporate impropriety, such as fraud, theft, negligence, corruption, deception, poor customer service etc.
11 Steps to Effectively Managing a PR Crisis
A company or organisation is only as good as its ability to quickly, effectively, and creatively manage a crisis. Regardless of the size of your business, creating a PR crisis plan will help you stay on message and control the response to any situation that puts your business at risk.
The following are 11 steps you can take to create a solid PR crisis plan:
1. Set up a PR crisis management team
This should be your core support team, who will make key decisions in times of crisis. Make sure that they know how they fit into your plan and feel confident in their roles. Make sure they’re available at all times.
There is no magic formula for a PR crisis team, but it should be a cross-functional group of individuals who have different expertise. Having someone from legal, customer service, communications, and public relations on the team ensures that all bases are covered.
The PR crisis team should consist of
- The organisation’s CEO or MD and voice of the organisation during a crisis.
- The-house PR person or head of communications.
- A senior marketing executive/customer service representative and;
- A skilled and experienced team of copywriters.
- A legal representative (although this can be shared between your in-house lawyer and external counsel).
This team needs to be in place from the moment you set up your business, otherwise you risk being ill-prepared for a crisis.
A good plan is to meet quarterly to run through scenarios that might happen. This might include the following:
- What would we do if a customer complaint was picked up by the press?
- How would we respond if a serious incident occurred at one of our events?
- What if someone made an offensive statement on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?
- If we were to receive negative feedback on TripAdvisor, Yelp or Google Review, how would we respond?
Try not to be reactive during these meetings – put yourself in the position of an angry journalist or unhappy customer, and ask how you would react. This will prepare you for any eventuality.
If anything did happen, it’s important that you’re able to hit the ground running because the clock is ticking – every hour that passes without damage control is another hour that journalists or customers will have been talking about your brand. It is therefore vital that you are prepared with a line of
2. Outline specific roles of each team members
Team roles and responsibilities need to be clear if your crisis communication plan is going to work. Your team members should all understand what they’re supposed to do in a crisis and how they can help each other.
Members of the public may also want to know who they can contact and what they can expect from your team during a crisis.
For example, if you will have a designated spokesperson or official point of contact, that person should be identified in the plan too, along with details of what you will do with any information provided by members of the public.
It is also important that you include details of your legal support, including where they are based, who you have appointed and how people can contact them.
Here are a few things you should consider as part of your PR crisis management plan:
- Who will decide what information needs to be released, and in what format? What channels will the information be released through? How will they handle negative comments, and how quickly can they respond?
- How will they deal with the media? Will you hold an external or internal press conference? Will you send out written statements or release video footage?
- Who will liaise with the affected departments, such as marketing and communications? Who will work with law enforcement if it’s needed?
- Who is responsible for verifying information before it goes out, and double-checking facts when something has been released?
- Who is responsible for external communication – responding to journalists, bloggers and other members of the public on social media channels and elsewhere online?
- Who is responsible for internal communication – talking to employees about what has happened and how the company intends to deal with it?
- Who is responsible for managing the financial aspects of any crisis management, including dealing with any offers from crisis PR firms or expenses incurred through legal advice.
- How long should the crisis team be in place for? The team should remain active until everything has been resolved.
3. Identify potential crisis scenarios
When you’ve experienced a crisis before, you know it’s something that can happen to any business. And while the effects of a crisis can be devastating, they don’t have to be if you’re prepared.
Planning ahead is critical when it comes to dealing with a crisis, so look at your business and identify possible scenarios:
- An injury caused by your business to a client, employee, or the general public
- Defects or quality issues with your product
- Storms, floods, or any other natural disaster that affects or damages your business
- A legal action taken against your business by an employee, client or customer.
4. Decide which audiences should be notified and what questions they may have
Your plan should include a list of all the audiences you will need to notify and questions they might ask. Who are your main stakeholders?
- Media contacts – These are the journalists and bloggers who will write about your business. They need to be informed as soon as possible and will also be useful for spreading the message further.
- Customers – You may want to reach out to individual customers or make a public statement on your website.
- Employees – It’s important that your employees know what’s going on so they can respond appropriately.
- Partners, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders – If investors are concerned about the crisis, you can promise an update on how you’re dealing with it. These are also important because they may be able to help you with any PR crisis and/or help you control the bad news.
Think about the key audiences that might be affected by a crisis, and which questions they might ask you. For instance, your employees will likely want to know if it’s safe for them to come into work, while members of the media will want to know what caused an incident and how you’ll prevent it from happening again.
If possible, draft a set of templates for answering such questions; this will help you handle such inquiries more effectively.
5. Make a plan for communicating with the media
A media relations plan will help you define how you’ll respond to the media, how you’ll keep them updated and in what format, who will be involved and what you’ll do if they want to speak to someone other than your CEO/MD or visit your business.
Once you’ve drafted a plan, it should be shared with the rest of the team. You might also consider sharing it with key suppliers or distributors so they can prepare for any possible questions.
Here are some things you should include in your plan:
- Who will be involved? What are the approval processes?
- How often will you contact the media?
- How will you follow up?
- What information will you send out?
- And who is authorised to respond on behalf of your organisation?
6. Determine your PR crisis command centre
When a PR crisis strikes, you should expect calls and emails from the media, your customers and other stakeholders. To manage this effectively, you need a central location where your team can work quickly to respond while allowing your business to continue operating as normal. This is called your crisis command centre (CCC).
Your crisis command centre can be a meeting room or office on your premises or an off-site location such as a nearby hotel or conference centre. Most companies prefer to have their crisis command centre off-site in case of fire, flood or other emergency that might necessitate an urgent evacuation.
The crisis command centre must be accessible on short notice and have phone and internet access. Also make sure it has materials you’ll need, such as paper, pens, clipboards, and a whiteboard.
From here, your team can place and receive calls to update your key audiences, including responding to media requests and updating customers. This space can also be used for a press conference.
Treating a PR crisis like a fire drill helps you be more prepared when one happens, so you can effectively handle it.
7. Train, simulate and prepare
The plan must be understood and fully supported by your CEO/MD. IIt is critically important that the he/she signs off on the plan and is properly trained on speaking to the media. This will demonstrate commitment to the plan and help to keep everyone focused when things go wrong.
The plan must be easy to read, clearly structured, and understood by all team members. Wherever possible use diagrams and bullet points to help explain complicated issues. It makes it easier for members of your crisis team to understand what they need to do at every phase of the crisis management plan.
Once you have developed your crisis communications plan, test it out with a simulated crisis or crisis situation. This will make sure that everyone understands their role in the event of an actual crisis.
To ensure your organisation is fully prepared for a crisis, take the time to prepare each member of your Crisis Team in advance with training sessions which cover how to handle media enquiries and talking points for staff who may unexpectedly be faced with questions from the media. The earlier you start preparing for a crisis, the less likely it is that one will actually happen or spiral out of control!
8. Be prompt, smart and clear
It is a truism that for a crisis to be an opportunity, the crisis must first be addressed – promptly clearly, accountably and in a simplified manner. The longer the lack of response is allowed to linger or complex the reaction is, the more serious the problem becomes and the more difficult it is to find a good solution.
In 2003, British Petroleum’s plan for dealing with a spill at its Alaska oil field was criticised for being overly complex and confusing. Although the result was not a brand failure like those involving failed products from Toyota, Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol), or McDonald’s (pink slime), it didn’t do much for BP’s already tarnished reputation after an oil spill in 2000 and accusations of suppressing safety issues concerning its Alaska pipeline two years earlier.
It is equally true that some important steps should not be taken rashly because ill-conceived action can have disastrous consequences. Take time to analyze the situation, weigh options and determine how best to proceed.
The situation you face may call for such an analysis: You are aware of a problem but do not know how best to go about addressing it. Your decision-making process needs to include careful deliberation in order to achieve optimum results while avoiding negative consequences.
So, it’s vital to:
- First gather all the facts and determine what exactly you are facing. Do not make any assumptions or jump to conclusions; just look at what you know and evaluate it objectively.
- Next, identify your options and consider each one carefully, as well as any risks associated with each choice. Be sure also to examine unintended consequences that may occur with any of your choices; these can often be worse than the problem itself.
9. Track media coverage and online mentions
Everyone has a smartphone and a 24-hour news cycle to share their opinions. That’s why it’s so important to monitor the media for your brand, especially if you’re a small business.
Monitoring the media is easy. There are several tools out there that monitor and aggregate news stories about your brand, competitors or industry. They allow you to see what people are saying about you on social media, blogs, forums and more.
A little-known trick is that monitoring the news can also provide intelligence on possible threats to your brand before they blow up in your face.
For example, if you’re a new e-commerce brand with a loyal fan base, scouring the web for mentions of your brand might be fun. But that same search might also reveal posts by disgruntled customers who are having trouble with customer service or other issues related to your business model.
Searching Google News for “XYZ e-commerce brand” might turn up an article by a local newspaper about problems customers are having with your company’s shipping process. This could be a red flag that your business needs some tweaking before things get worse – maybe it’s time to consider hiring more customer service agents or switching shipping carriers.
10. Identity and engage influencers and brand ambassadors
There are people who are already familiar with your brand or product and have a large following of their own. You can leverage these guys not only for marketing campaigns and product launches, but also to help sway opinions during PR crises.
You should approach individuals depending on the nature of the crisis. For example, if you have a PR crisis dealing with a product recall, it is important to reach out to someone who has used your products and has been previously positive towards the company.
However, if the crisis is more public relations related, such as an offensive advertisement or tweet, then a popular blogger or someone who can appeal to millennials would be better suited.
The key is to find people who are leaders in their respective fields so that they have enough influence to help you solve the issue.
11. Review and update
The best crisis plan is one that is regularly updated, tested and refreshed. PR responses to crises are not a sequence of events that take place over a set period of time. They are a process that should be continually updated in response to new information and changing circumstances.
For example, when an on-the-record spokesperson makes a statement about an issue then it is assumed the organisation supports it. If your organisation changes its position, do not leave it to the media to ask the spokesperson whether they know about it. The organisation’s leadership should inform the spokesperson immediately so they can adjust their message accordingly.
To keep the crisis plan current, use this opportunity to review the plan with all the people involved in its implementation: the spokesperson, internal and external communications teams, legal counsel, senior executive team and board members.
PR Crisis Management Tools
There are many PR crisis management tools on the market, ranging from expensive big guns to budget-friendly options. A good tool is one that can provide you with a number of features, including:
- 24/7 global coverage – You want your tool to be available when it matters most. A strong crisis is likely to happen at an inconvenient time. Be sure that your tool offers 24/7 coverage globally.
- Instant alerts – Don’t wait for your PR team to monitor the news and send alerts to you. You need a tool which does the job for you. It should have real-time alerting capabilities, so you get notified about breaking news as soon as it happens.
- Social media monitoring – Your tool should not only let you know about breaking news, but also let you know what people are saying on social media about it, in real time. This information can help you take immediate actions before things blow up out of proportion.
- Engagement capability – Crisis management is more than just monitoring what others are saying about your brand or company; it also involves engaging with them in a timely manner. Your tool should give you the ability to respond quickly, fairly and effectively across various channels, be it web or social media platforms.
What Not to Do in a Crisis!
When faced with a crisis situation, there are some things you should avoid doing. These actions can have negative consequences for the reputation of the organisation.
- Don’t panic. It’s a natural reaction, but it will only make things worse. If the situation is under control, or doesn’t have legs, don’t move forward with a response just yet. If the negative news is only affecting one part of your business, take a day or two to regroup before responding.
- Don’t make a statement until you have all the facts. When faced with a crisis situation, many people want to make a statement as soon as possible to show that they are taking control of the situation. It is important to know as much as possible about what happened before you issue a statement. Making statements without all of the facts can lead to more problems for your organization and make it harder for you to defuse the crisis.
- Don’t try to deny or suppress the problem. You don’t need to admit that there’s been a huge mistake or lie; however, you should acknowledge that there is a problem and that you’re working to fix it.
- Don’t ignore your team. Consult with your PR crisis team before making any statements or doing anything else in public.
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep, such as issuing refunds for every customer who is unhappy about their purchase.
- If you’re not available to be interviewed, don’t send a spokesperson or other representative in your place — especially if they are less informed than you are about the issue at hand. If you can’t comment right away, tell reporters when you’ll be able to talk and then keep your word.
- Don’t take legal action against anyone who is reporting on the crisis. This is rarely effective and can make things worse by giving reporters more grist for their mill (and more reason to cover it).
- Don’t attack the reporter who breaks your story or anyone else who reports on it simply because they are doing their job as journalists (unless they’ve lied about something). Please know that these things happen.
- Don’t point fingers at others or make excuses for your organisation’s actions or policies. When your organisation is facing a crisis, it is important not to try to pin the blame on others, such as another person or organisation, or try to justify your actions by making excuses. Doing so will only further increase negative publicity around your organization and likely will not change any of the facts surrounding the situation.
- Don’t go it alone. PR crisis management is teamwork and often requires bringing in outside resources—PR firms are experienced at handling bad news and know the best way to manage it so that it doesn’t blow up into a full-blown crisis.
How to Avoid a PR Crisis
The truth is, you can’t. No matter how careful you are, sooner or later you’ll be faced with a PR crisis. It’s inevitable, we all make mistakes and by doing so, we can be put in a bad light to our clients, our peers, the media and potential investors.
The best way to avoid a PR crisis is to identify the risks early on so you can minimise the damage that might occur in the first place and have a solid crisis plan in place for when it happens. The better prepared you are, the easier it will be to deal with it.
Here are top tips on how to avoid a PR crisis:
- Make sure you understand your stakeholders: who are they, what do they need and expect from you, what would they accept as an apology or compensation?
- Always put yourself in your customers’ shoes and ask yourself if you would like this happening to you?
- Build positive relationships with journalists and publicists in your industry. Having someone on your team who’s responsible for listening and responding to any negative press can help mitigate the damage done when something goes wrong.
- Set up Google alerts for your business name is also a good idea. This means that you’ll be informed instantly if something pops up on Google News or other news sites that could be damaging to your business, giving you time to respond before the problem escalates.
- Ensure all your brand or organisation’s standards and procedures are fair and clear.
- Does your staff know what they should be doing?
- Are they well trained?
- Social media policies are also very important, especially for whoever is responsible for handling the corporate accounts/handles. Policies should include examples of what not to say or do on social media.
- Do you have an established procedure for complaints & handling them professionally?
- Do you have a system in place for dealing with complaints in the first instance?
- Do you know how to deal with the media in a professional manner?
- You should also have an emergency contact list of reporters and editors at local newspapers, TV stations and online news sites that you can use if you need to get in touch with them quickly about an issue that requires immediate attention.
As you can see from the above, there are plenty of things to do in order to prepare a PR crisis plan. Making sure that your brand is well positioned is essential. Take the time to complete a full brand audit and be prepared for a crisis before it happens. With your plan in place, you will have the tools you need to create positive conversation online. Be sure that you’re ready for what comes next.
Importantly, a good PR crisis plan should be simple and straightforward. It should boil down to a handful of key points that anyone in the organization can easily understand and follow. But, most importantly, the point of this plan is not to sit on a shelf gathering dust-it is for communicating with your public, whether through proactive measures or on the fly. Good luck!
Prohibition PR: Your Expert PR Crisis Communication and Management Partner
Responding quickly to a crisis is an essential skill for businesses today. Some businesses get it right by investing in some top-notch PR crisis management services. If you manage a business, it’s time to consider a crisis communications management provider that gives you that support and expertise.
That’s why we’re here. To help you navigate the PR storm and keep your reputation in good standing, Prohibition PR is your expert partner for PR crisis communication and response. We can help manage even the most challenging public relations disasters with empathy, professionalism, and finesse.
We provide expert communications advice to organisations facing a PR crisis, as well as help with your communications in the aftermath of a crisis.
Our expert PR crisis management services include:
- Protocols to follow following a PR crisis
- Preparing, drafting, and issuing effective press releases, as well as helping with your organisation’s brand communications goals.
- Tips for mitigating negative publicity; and more,
If you’ve endured a PR crisis or are worried about potential issues, then let’s talk. Our team includes crisis experts, with advice on how to prepare for, respond to and manage serious communications issues.
For more interesting articles from us on PR in a crisis check out some of our other articles:
- The Top Ten PR Crises of 2021
- The top 11 crises of 2020
- Top nine PR crises so far for 2019
- Why it’s important to prepare for a PR crisis
- 10 Crisis Communication Tips Every Business Needs
- 11 Steps For Crisis Management
- What Is Crisis Management And Why Its Important?