PR Crisis Management: 6 Effective Steps For Organizations

PR crisis managementWhen a PR crisis hits your organization, the situation is already bad enough. However, a lack of planning can lead to irreparable reputation damage. In this blog post, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about PR crisis management. This includes types of crises, how to spot one, creating a plan, managing a crisis, and examples you can learn from.

What Is PR Crisis Management?

Public Relations Crisis Management is all about mitigating the damage to your reputation that unexpected negative events can cause. This is a key part of PR reputation management. A public relations (PR) crisis is any situation that threatens the reputation, integrity, or financial stability of an organization.

Typically, negative situations like this attract significant negative attention from the press, stakeholders, customers, and the public.

PR crisis management is critical for every organization for a few reasons:

  • Maintaining public trust. Effectively handling crises allows companies to protect their brand reputation (or even enhance it). 
  • Mitigating financial losses. Crises can have huge implications on finances of a business, but effective management can reduce this impact.
  • Ensuring business continuity. Proper PR crisis management allows business to continue smooth operations.

No matter what type of crisis occurs at your organization, every crisis management plan has these key elements. (We’ll dive deeper into these later):

  • Preparation and planning
  • Identification and assessment
  • Response strategy
  • Communication
  • Containment and resolution
  • Recovery and evaluation

Types of PR Crises:

To effectively deal with PR crises, you have to know what could happen. 69% of business leaders have experienced at least one crisis in the last year (World Economic Forum). Plus, businesses with 5,000 or more employees likely experience one crisis every year.

likelihood of a pr crisis

Business crises happen more often than you may think. The majority of business leaders say they experience an organizational crisis at least once in the last year. Furthermore, large businesses with more than 5,000 employees are likely to experience one crisis each year.

Types of crises can include:

  • Product/Service. The product or service fails to meet customer expectations in some way. This could include product defects, food contamination, software bugs, or more. This can lead to dissatisfaction, recalls, safety issues, etc.
  • Corporate/Organizational. This relates to the overall actions or policies of a business or organization. This includes corporate fraud, financial mismanagement, executive misconduct, or unethical business practices.
  • Employee Misconduct. This relates to the actions of employees. It can include harassment, discrimination, employee fraud, and public scandals.
  • Natural Disasters and Accidents. These crises are outside the organization’s control, however they still affect operations and their response matters. This can include earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, industrial or transportation accidents, or more. (Keep reading for an example of how one business expertly handled this type of situation.)
  • Legal/Regulatory. This includes any lawsuits, regulatory fines, compliance violations, or investigations that get significant media attention.
  • Technological. This relates to failures in systems that either disrupt operations or compromise data security. This includes cyber attacks, data breaches, IT system failures, software malfunctions, etc.
  • Rumors/Misinformation. This involves any false information or malicious disinformation that someone spreads about an organization.
  • Social Media. Bad news spreads fast on social media. This includes any controversial posts made by the business, viral customer complaints, or negative social media campaigns.
  • Leadership. This includes any actions or decisions made by senior leaders. It includes CEO scandals, poor leadership decisions judged by the public, or even leadership changes.
  • Community Relations. This happens when an organization’s actions negatively affect the local community or environment. This includes environmental damage, community health impacts, or something else that sparks local protest.
  • Supply Chain Disruptions. This includes supplier failures, transportation strikes, and shortages of critical materials. This is not usually within the organization’s control, but a strategic response is still important.
  • Reputation. This is any situation that specifically targets an organization’s reputation. This can be the result of smaller issues built up over time or a large singular event. Typically, this kind of crisis would cause public boycotts or widespread negative media coverage (i.e national or global).

How To Identify a PR Crisis

Knowing how to identify a PR crisis before it gets out of control is critical. 34% of businesses who already experienced a crisis say they would do more to identify crisis scenarios (Hubspot).

Now, not every single thing will escalate to a crisis-level situation. You have to evaluate how widespread the problem is. The more widespread the issue is, the more likely it is to create a crisis.

how to identify a PR crisis

Identifying a crisis scenario before it escalates is the key to effective management. 34% of businesses who have already experienced a crisis that they wish they had done more to identify crisis scenarios.

These can indicate an oncoming PR crisis:

  • A sudden increase in negative brand mentions on social media or in the news.
  • High-profile complaints from influencers.
  • An unusual spike in traffic to the “about us” or “contact us” pages on your website. This can indicate growing public interest.
  • Internal discontent within your organization, such as widespread employee dissatisfaction or an increase in turnover.
  • An emergence or spike in negative hashtag usage.
  • Multiple customer complaints about the same issues over and over.

Remember, keep an eye on the news cycle and online mentions about your brand so you can catch these problems early.

How To Create a PR Crisis Management Plan

If you don’t already have a crisis management PR plan in place, you needed one yesterday. Use these tips to create a crisis management plan before something bad happens:

  1. Classify different levels of crises. Consider the possible types of crises that could impact your organization. Then, evaluate the impact each could have to your operations, reputation, and finance. Categorize these by level of severity (low, medium, high) to determine the appropriate response.
  2. Build a crisis management team. This includes key stakeholders like the CEO, head of HR, head of legal, head operations, and other senior management. Clearly define everyone’s roles and establish a chain of command for decision-making.
  3. Train your employees in crisis management best practices. Perform regular training sessions where you simulate different scenarios. Make sure all employees know the protocol and who to contact.
  4. Establish notification procedures. Create guidelines on who should receive notifications based on the level of severity. Maintain up-to-date contact details for key personnel. Define an escalation process to higher authorities.
  5. Designate a spokesperson. Select a single, trained spokesperson who communicates with the media to keep things consistent. Make sure they have pre-approved messages and key talking points.
  6. Create a to-do list. Keep a list of immediate actions to take when a crisis happens (more on this in the next section). Assign each of these tasks to specific team members for smooth coordination.
  7. Prepare templates for press releases, social media posts, and other communication channels. Write up a holding statement template to acknowledge the event and let people know an investigation is happening. Tailor each message to fit the specific situation. 
  8. Create a crisis communication plan. Outline communication channels you will use, including social media, website updates, emails, and crisis press releases. Include key points that address the issue, reassure stakeholders, and demonstrate your commitment to resolution.
  9. Monitor your reputation. Set up Google Alerts for your brand name and use social media monitoring tools to track mentions. Tracking mentions and analyzing public sentiment allows you to catch crises before they escalate. 

6 Steps To Manage a PR Crisis

Once a negative event occurs,  use these crisis handling strategies. Think of this as your crisis “to-do” list.

1.Respond immediately

Do not wait for media pressure before you respond. At the same time, you don’t want to jump the gun before you have all the information. So, you need to buy yourself some time.

First, activate your crisis management team. Give them a brief overview of the situation that includes any known facts and the level of severity.

Before taking any action, send out your holding statement. This buys you time to gather all necessary details to make an informed response. A holding statement should:

  • acknowledge the situation
  • express concern for affected parties
  • indicate a commitment to investigation
  • assure the public that you will give regular updates as information becomes available
  • provide contact details for media inquiries

2.Assess the situation

When a crisis hits, firstly you should step back and gather all the facts of the situation. The goal here is to understand the scope, nature, and potential impact. Making an accurate assessment is critical to avoid misinformation and panic. Use these tips:

  • Identify what caused the problem. Gather all available information from both internal and external sources. Cross check facts from multiple sources.
  • Determine the extent of the crisis (local, regional, national, internation). Then, identify who the situation affects (employees, customers, partners, investors, etc).
  • Determine the potential consequences to your reputation, operations, and finances. Consider both immediate and long-term damage.

3.Communicate internally and externally

Effective communication is critical to maintain trust with both internal and external stakeholders. Your communications should be empathic, transparent, consistent, timely, and responsive.

Use these tips:

  • Alert your employees of the crisis before they hear it on the news. Offer guidance about how they can handle media inquiries. Establish a feedback system for employees to ask questions and offer feedback.
  • Communicate directly with key stakeholders, providing tailored messaging to address their specific concerns.
  • If the situation has a localized impact, engage with the community. Show empathy and offer support. Highlight any corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives that demonstrate your commitment to mitigating the impact.
  • Be as transparent as possible, but do not speculate or release any unverified information. Do not get defensive and don’t make false promises.
  • Issue regular press releases, posts on social media channels, and website updates about the situation. Address the public’s concerns, correct misinformation, and tell them what actions you are taking.

4.Address the root cause of the crisis

Simply acknowledging the problem is not enough. You must back up your communication strategy with effective change. Take immediate steps to fix the root cause of the problem and mitigate the effects.

After these short-term changes, you also need long-term changes to systems, processes, and policies. Your goal here is to prevent this situation from happening again in the future. Make sure you communicate these changes to the public.

5.Manage the narrative

Organizations can actually boost their reputation following a crisis. But, you need to know how to manage the narrative and shape public perception. Use these tips:

  • Publish clear key messages that address the root issues, the actions taken, and the organization’s commitment to resolution. Ensure all communications have a consistent voice.
  • Proactively engage with both the media and social media. Aim to clear up any misunderstandings with direct communication.
  • Create channels for the public and other stakeholders to offer feedback and ask questions.
  • Highlight any positive actions your organization is taking to address the crisis. Share success stories and testimonials that demonstrate your organization’s efforts.
  • Regularly monitor the situation and how effective your response is. You may need to adapt strategies based on new information and feedback.

6.Conduct a post-crisis evaluation

Once the situation is over, you’re still not done! Remember when we said crises are likely to happen every year? Once the situation is stable, it’s time for a post-crisis evaluation.

Hold a debriefing session with your team. Here, you will identify any lessons learned and where you can improve for next time. Update the crisis plan as needed to avoid a future PR disaster.

Maybe you came out of this completely unscathed. Still, recovering from a business or personal reputation crisis is a good idea. To repair your reputation, consider some additional community engagement, CSR initiatives, and positive media campaigns.

The Best PR Crisis Management Example:

Johnson & Johnson PR crisis management

Johnson & Johnson

What happened: Seven people in Chicago in 1982 sadly died after taking Tylenol pills someone laced with cyanide. Chaos ensued when people were justifiably terrified about these random poisonings. To this day, the case remains unsolved.

The theory is that the perpetrator took bottles of Tylenol off the shelves and tampered with them. At the time, pills did not come in tamper-proof bottles, so people had no way of knowing.

Johnson & Johnson’s response: The company was not at fault for this crisis, however their response was immediate. They stopped all advertising, halted production, and took Tylenol off the shelves in a nationwide recall. Johnson Johnson sent hundreds of thousands of messages to healthcare facilities and issued safety warnings to customers.

Johnson & Johnson were honest and transparent the entire time. They also changed their packaging as a result to ensure people couldn’t tamper with their product.

What brands can learn from this: This example is both dated and an extreme situation. However, this incident created the formula for PR crisis management brands still follow today.

Alan Hilburg, Former Executive at Burson-Marsteller Public Relations Firm who worked with Johnson & Johnson, said it best:

“We were never going to be judged by what caused the problem. We were always going to be judged on how we responded to it.”

To re-establish trust, brands must take swift action. You can’t just apologize for the problem. You have to show empathy, implement real change, and communicate that change to consumers. In the end, consumers ended up trusting Johnson Johnson even more for how they handled the situation.

Conclusion: Managing PR Crises

The fact that a business reputation crisis can impact your organization’s bottom line is no secret. Use these tips to prepare your organization for a crisis and respond to them when they arise.

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Your reputation depends on your ability to manage PR crises effectively. When you need reputational help, the experts at Reputation911 are here for you. We offer custom reputation management services for businesses and individuals. Take control over your reputation today by scheduling your free consultation.

About The Author

William DiAntonio is the Founder & CEO of Reputation911, a reputation management firm he founded in 2010 that has earned the trust of its clients for over a decade by helping individuals, businesses and brands control their online search results.

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