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 critical.
Crisis management planning 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 about how to manage a PR crisis. Done well, it can help protect your brand’s reputation 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 within 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.
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.
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.
2. Crisis management
Even with the best planning in the world, a crisis can blow up. 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 right people as soon as possible. Then together, identify the best response mechanism for the situation.
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 team.
If your business had any part in the problem, take responsibility and apologise with sincerity. 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’.
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.
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.
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.
- Could the same situation emerge again in future? What monitoring or listening do you need to put in place to prepare? Be aware that your social listening and other alerts may need to be tweaked and update them accordingly.
What should I do next with a PR crisis?