What is PR crisis management and when do you need it?

PR crisis management is often seen as a process that only kicks in when something goes wrong. Dealing with an emergency in the moment is an important part of crisis communications, but what happens before and after is also a critical part of crisis management.

A crisis management plan allows you to prepare for events that could threaten the business, its reputation, your stakeholders or the public.

Good PR crisis management involves putting a plan in place and having a shared understanding of how to manage a PR crisis. Done well, it can help protect your brand’s reputation across your communication channels and lessen an emergency.

In this blog, we explore the role of PR in crisis management and look at how to manage a PR crisis.

What does a business crisis look like?

The type of crisis that affects your business may be totally different to a crisis that affects another. While you can never predict every potential problem, it’s useful to be aware of the types of situations that might affect your company.

In short, a crisis is any emergency that can have a negative effect on your business. Think about what could threaten to affect the following aspects of your business:

  • Financial losses
  • Reputational damage
  • Operational issues
  • Safety concerns

How to manage a PR crisis

The PR crisis management process starts way before a problem occurs and ends some time afterwards. Understanding the full life cycle of crisis communications is key to doing it well. Assessing problems early can improve management strategies and avoid unnecessary action.

1. Pre-crisis management

This is the planning stage, where you raise awareness of potential problems and keep alert to the risks and threats.

  • Create a strategy

    What is the process for dealing with a problem when it arises? A crisis strategy should include a clear flow diagram that walks people through each step. Include names and contact details of who to alert if the situation needs to be escalated. Add clear directions about what to do out of hours.

    Next is an outline of how to respond. You may need to mock up different scenarios and how you respond to each one. This could include social media posts, press releases, emails and even public ads, depending on the situation. Include names and details of who would need to sign off responses before they’re made public.

  • Monitor and listen

    Social listening is key to staying alert to what people are saying about your business or brand. Free tools like Hootsuite allow you to quickly keep tabs on all brand mentions online. If you want to take it further, consider a tool that measures sentiment in online mentions. This can be a handy way to spot a sudden spike in negative sentiment. Other tools like Google Alerts are a useful way to monitor brand mentions in the wider media.

  • Appoint a crisis team

    Put together a small team of people to be responsible for daily monitoring and listening. Walk them through the strategy and do a dummy run so they know who to contact and what to do in different scenarios. Create your PR crisis team who can jump in and diffuse the situation if it arises with the right crisis response.

  • Brief the wider team

    Make sure you’ve communicated the plans to the rest of the business to avoid other employees wading in with inappropriate responses. A public relations crisis can be exacerbated by employees adding to the fire, particularly on social media.

2. Crisis management 

Even with the best planning in the world, a crisis can blow up and your business can head to financial and reputation loss. If the worst happens, here’s how to respond in the moment.

  • Consult your plan

    You’ve done a lot of the hard work already, so put it to use! Contact the key stakeholders, business partners etc as soon as the crisis hits. Then together, identify the best response mechanism for the situation.

  • Act quickly

    The first action is to stop other planned communications from going out. A badly-timed tweet about office life can only make a bad situation worse.

    Be swift but assess the situation first. Take a step back to fully understand what’s being said publicly about your business. Carefully draft your response and get it agreed with key members of your crisis management team.

  • Reputation management is essential with a PR disaster, with potentially years of hard work lost in minutes. Social media is a great way to get information out fast and directly to your audiences, communicating your side or your position.
  • A press release is part of effective crisis management and should be used by your PR team to share with journalists and editors in a timely manner. Speed really is of the essence here to protect your brand reputation.
  • Take responsibility

    If your business had any part in the problem, take responsibility and apologise with sincerity. Identify the key executives who will be the face of the business for this. To do this well, you’ll need to recognise and address the people who have been affected.

    Facebook’s handling of its huge data breach is a perfect example of how not to do this. Personal data including phone numbers and birth dates from 533 million people was published on a hacking forum in April 2021. Not only did Facebook fail to speak out for four days, but when they finally responded, they blamed it on ‘old data’.

  • Take action

    There’s no point saying sorry and then returning to business as usual. Show how you plan to address the situation and avoid saying ‘no comment’ at all costs.

    Depending on the situation, you may need to review your processes, stop selling a product or retract a statement. Whatever the course of action, communicate this with your audience so they know what you’re doing.

  • Be human and be transparent

    Remember that in B2B communications, people still want you to be human. And being human is about making mistakes.

    Contrast Facebook’s response above with how KFC responded when it ran out of chicken and had to close many restaurants. Its response was open and honest, and it even managed to incorporate an element of humour to lighten the situation.

3. Post-crisis management

The eye of the storm has passed, but part of the role of PR in crisis management is to continue monitoring. Negative news could still pop up as new journalists, editors, or even influencers on social media platforms continue to push out the story.

  • Analyse your response

    What went well in your response to the crisis and with hindsight, what could you have done differently? Learn from each situation and share the learnings with your team to improve your system for next time.

  • Book in media training for the PR crisis team so that they can effectively communicate when a crisis occurs or negative publicity dominates your SERPs.
  • Review the media coverage to understand what went well and what could be improved with your crisis communications plan.
  • Follow up

    Show your audiences and stakeholders how you’ve learned from the crisis. It might take time to investigate the situation properly, but remember to communicate any findings later on. You could publish a blog post or even produce a public report.

  • Communicate what’s changed

    If you’ve done something positive as a result of the crisis, tell people about it.

    Starbucks walked into a PR crisis when staff called the police on two black customers for not ordering anything. Their CEO responded by issuing an apology, closing 8,000 US stores and providing racial bias training for all staff. A great example of taking positive action in response to a crisis.

  • Keep monitoring

  • Could the same situation emerge again in future? What media monitoring or social media listening do you need to put in place to prepare? Be aware that your social media listening and other alerts may need to be tweaked and update them accordingly.

What should I do next with crisis communication?

Interested in finding out more about how to manage a PR crisis? Contact us today to arrange a call about how we can help with crisis communications.