PR crisis. PR nightmare. PR catastrophe.
No matter what we call it, it remains something very unpleasant and undesirable for a brand.
It has become even scarier for businesses in the era of social media. A single tweet may hit with a hurricane of backlashes in a split second. You can just imagine the wild rides Tesla investors take when Elon Musk’s tweets move markets and affect the firm’s image.
A public relations crisis may occur at any time in any business. It has already happened to such brands as Pepsi, Samsung, Google, KFC, Starbucks, Uber… And this list could go on and on.
You can sit and wait your turn till it finally comes around.
You can gear yourself up with some essential tools and knowledge to manage a PR crisis effectively. This ultimate guide can help you do that.
But first things first:
Table of Contents
- What’s PR crisis management?
- How to prepare for a public relations crisis
- A 7-step guide to manage a PR crisis
- Bonus: 3 Don’ts for Managing PR Crises
- Final Words
- Frequently Asked Questions
What’s PR crisis management?
Public relations crisis management is a set of procedures aimed to prevent or lessen the damage from unexpected events that may threaten the company’s operations or reputation.
How do you know you are facing a PR crisis and what measures should you undertake to cope with it?
If you answer “Yes” to any of the following questions, it’s time to act.
Question #1. Will this spoil your brand’s image?
Question #2. Are there any threats to the safety and health of your workers or customers?
Question #3. Can it lead to the loss of trust (inside or outside the company)?
Public relations crises may be of different types. Typically, these are employee-, customer-, or business-related situations like as follows:
- Massive service outages or connection issues
- Cyberattacks that lead to data leakages
- Injuries or deaths of employees
- Harm to customers caused by the company’s actions, products, or services
- Accusations of racism, abuse, or other forms of inappropriate behavior by the company’s top executives
- Claims or lawsuits against an organization or its leaders
For example, such giants as McDonald’s, Amazon, Disney, and Facebook, among others, were sued over discrimination. There may be tons of other accidents that disrupt business processes and undermine the brand’s reputation.
Not many entrepreneurs can say they are fully prepared for such emergencies. In fact, 95% of business leaders confess that their crisis management skills need improvement.
Don’t wait until the worst scenario unfolds before you. Play it safe, plan ahead, and make preparations to confront your next PR emergency.
How to prepare for a public relations crisis
Below are some basic things you can start with.
Create a crisis management team
You should set up a capable crisis response team and take care of coaching. For that, train your team to spot a social media crisis or any other PR fiasco before it’s too late.
Choose a spokesperson
When preparing for PR crisis communications, it’s advisable to assign a spokesperson to speak on your brand’s behalf. It should be a good communicator and a credible deliverer of your messages.
Develop a strategic plan and exercise
You may need a preliminary action plan for managing a PR crisis. Roughly 62% of companies have such a crisis plan, but 40% have never conducted a crisis exercise.
Try to visualize and practice the “who-does-what-and-when” in phases or steps.
Pre-draft your responses and pick communication channels
41% of businesses can boast of communication protocols in their crisis management strategies. Fewer than half have pre-drafted messages for social media and the press.
Track your online reputation regularly
Continuous brand monitoring is a must-do preventive measure against PR crises. If you want to maintain it effectively, take advantage of the following social media monitoring tools to track brand mentions:
- Google Alerts
- Awario, or the like
But what if you have already got into public relations trouble?
See how to wriggle out of it in seven steps.
A 7-step guide to manage a PR crisis
Here are seven steps for effective crisis management in public relations.
Step 1: Gather information and clarify the issue
“When a PR crisis breaks out, first and foremost, you should collect all the information and do fact-checking to evaluate the threat and determine the initial cause,” says Amy De La Fuente, Director of Public Affairs at Bosco Legal Services. “In case it’s a social media crisis, you may perform a social media investigation: examine posts, comments sections, blogs, and find social media evidence.”
Amy De La Fuente recommends gathering all the necessary data that concern the following:
- What (issue or situation)
- Who (responsible person or people)
- When (time)
- Where (place)
- Why (root cause)
You should also monitor the attitudes and reactions of people on all social platforms. That is when social listening becomes handy. Keyhole can help you find out who is talking about your brand and what they say with the social mention tracking tool.
Step 2: Be honest and accept liability
“Honesty is the key to effective PR crisis management,” claims Mark Pierce, CEO of Cloud Peak Law Group.
“You need to inform your stakeholders, team members, and clients about the crisis, its consequences, and how you’re planning to tackle it.
If controversial issues arise during a PR crisis, you might also need some legal advice. Businesses often work out legal response strategies together with their attorneys. It’s also crucial to identify who takes responsibility for damages and who is liable for compensation,” he adds.
Consider the following case of poor crisis management in PR.
When explaining hundreds of flight cancellations and delays in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2016, Delta Air Lines initially blamed the “power outage”. Georgia Power had to fire back by revealing the actual reason: Delta’s equipment failure.
Delta’s on-time reputation was tarnished by the initial blame factor. Later, the company claimed responsibility but the reputational damage was already done.
Step 3: Craft a proper crisis message
According to Zach Leonard, President of Gembah, “You should write a good crisis statement that addresses the problem, mirrors your company’s values, and restores your brand’s credibility. Avoid aggression in your message and try not to sound overdefensive.
If it’s an apology, it must be sincere. It’s a common practice among companies to apologize to their customers during disruptive product shortages, for instance.”
Speaking of the devil.
In 2010, OB tampons by Johnson & Johnson disappeared from the shelves due to distribution problems. The company created a personalized apology to each of the 65,010 women in the loyal user base.
Here’s another example.
KFC became FCK to say “sorry” for the chicken shortage and massive closures of KFCs in the UK and Ireland in 2018. The company also apologized with the “We’re sorry” note.
The audience couldn’t stop sharing this creative apology on Twitter and calling it “a masterclass in PR crisis management”.
Step 4: React as soon as possible
“The response to any PR emergency should be generated as quickly as possible,” believes Jonathan Elster, CEO at EcomHalo.
He continues: “Don’t wait for the rumors to spread around and nullify your attempts to explain the situation. As a business leader or crisis manager, make sure your reaction is visible on all available social media platforms.”
Southwest Airlines, for instance, managed to stay ahead of the curve and eliminate the possible rumors about the Boeing 737 that landed on its nose at LaGuardia Airport. The company told about the accident on Twitter and Facebook just a few minutes after it happened.
Step 5: Act on rectifying the situation
Let’s see how the American Red Cross rectified a near-crisis situation in public relations.
One of their workers tweeted through the wrong account and shared a personal tweet about #gettngslizzerd with four bottle packs of beer. It was one of the hashtag failures that could potentially hurt the company’s reputation.
The American Red Cross reacted within an hour or so, apologized in a humorous form, deleted the tweet, and ensured that the employees were sober.
It turned out to be a feel-good story and even inspired people to donate blood.
However, you can’t expect such a positive outcome from every risky scenario. Jerry Han, CMO at PrizeRebel, is convinced that “In some cases, rectification and apology may not be enough when you manage a PR crisis. You should not only rectify but also compensate if appropriate. It can be monetary compensation for harm/damage, a delay in services, or a product defect.”
Take another example of public relations crisis management by Johnson & Johnson.
1982 was a catastrophic year for the company. The Tylenol tampering incident resulted in seven deaths of its customers. Johnson & Johnson offered financial assistance and counseling to victims’ families, even though the brand wasn’t responsible for the product tampering.
Step 6: Address comments and reactions
Social monitoring is obligatory during any PR catastrophe. When it comes to a social media crisis, it becomes as vital as ever.
“It’s impossible to manage a PR crisis well and move on any further without analyzing hashtags and social media mentions. They can help you review and interpret people’s attitudes to the situation and understand what they think and feel about it.
In addition to that, you should respond to comments and concerns about the crisis. This way, you can show your brand’s sincerity and transparency.”
Learn from the example of Starbucks.
The 2018 arrests of two African-American men at a Philadelphia Starbucks instantly sparked protests over racial bias. Starbucks started managing the PR crisis with an explanation and an apology.
After that, the company answered the questions and addressed the comments that followed.
Step 7: Draw lessons and identify possibilities to improve
Want to hear the end of Starbucks’ story?
The company took its PR crisis seriously, drew conclusions, and reached an important decision. Starbucks closed over 8,000 locations to perform employee training on racial discrimination.
You can write a public message that you’ve learned the lesson. Just like Slack did after the major service outage in 2022.
Ken Savage, Owner at Ken Savage, labels it “the analysis step” or the “post-crisis stage”.
He provides a list of significant analytical questions to answer while taking this final step:
- How well did you manage the public relations crisis?
- Did you respond fast enough?
- What could have been done better?
- How can you improve your crisis management strategy to avoid similar issues in the future?
- Does your team require additional training on PR disaster management?
Bonus: 3 Don’ts for Managing PR Crises
This guide also breaks down some of the most critical don’ts. Here they are.
1. Don’t ignore – communicate
If you think the stormy weather will subside by the weekend – nothing of the kind. It’s better to communicate with your clients as much as possible.
Richard Branson demonstrated an exemplary crisis response when the accident with the Virgin Galactic spaceship killed one of the test pilots and injured another one. The company’s founder headed to join his team, expressed his sympathy on his blog, and communicated with the press on every stage of the investigation.
In the Virgin Galactic case study, Alan Draper outlined the three key steps of Richard Branson’s crisis communications:
Sincere and open communication can also make your PR fiascos on social media milder and more manageable.
2. Don’t try to deal with it alone – ask for help
You may hire PR pros. In some cases though, even a team of professionals may not be enough to tackle this challenge.
Do you remember the Tide Pod Challenge?
It was a nightmarish situation for Tide when teens started eating Tide PODS. Of course, Tide had to react.
Obviously, the simple words “not for eating” didn’t work. So, the brand found an influential figure among teenagers. Procter & Gamble, the maker of Tide, partnered with Rob Gronkowski, aka Gronk, to create an advert with the “DO NOT EAT” message from Gronk.
Use influencer tracking & analytics tools to discover your best influencers.
3. Don’t let social media jeopardize your business – create a policy
You can’t expect all social media mistakes to become a smile-and-forget. Similar to the one with the Red Cross.
That’s why it may be beneficial to develop a social media policy for your employees to avert the risk of embarrassment or awkwardness. It can prevent simple posts or comments from devolving into a PR crisis.
A public relations crisis can create turbulence you neither want nor can control. It’s like the Ice Bucket Challenge in its cruelest form. It makes your heart beat faster and you need to do something about it ASAP not to let yourself get drowned in the sea of negative repercussions.
Now that you’ve got this comprehensive guide, you’re armed with the essentials to survive a cold water bucket or even a tsunami of unforeseen situations.
Monitor your social media with Keyhole and always be ready for any surprises. Start your free trial today!
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is a PR crisis and how do I know if I'm experiencing one?
A PR crisis is a situation that threatens the reputation or image of your brand or organization. It can be caused by a variety of factors, such as negative media coverage, a social media scandal, or a product recall. Signs of a PR crisis may include a sudden increase in negative feedback or comments, a decline in sales or customer engagement, or a loss of trust from stakeholders.
2. How can I prepare for a PR crisis before it happens?
The best way to prepare for a PR crisis is to have a crisis management plan in place. This plan should include steps for identifying and responding to potential crises, as well as designated spokespeople and communication channels. It's also important to regularly monitor your brand's online presence and address any negative feedback or comments promptly.
3. What are some common mistakes to avoid during a PR crisis?
One common mistake is to ignore the crisis or downplay its significance. It's important to take the crisis seriously and respond quickly and transparently. Another mistake is to shift blame or make excuses, which can further damage your brand's reputation. Instead, take responsibility for any mistakes and focus on finding a solution and rebuilding trust with your stakeholders.