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How to handle a PR crisis

PR crises come in many shapes and sizes and can range from major to minor issues. The definition of a PR crisis is an incident that poses a threat to an organisation’s reputation.

While crises can vary in severity, they should be approached in a similar way to avoid, or reduce, reputation risk.

The key objectives for a PR team when a crisis is unfolding are to take control of the narrative, limit the media and social media spotlight and ensure what is being reported is accurate and not exaggerated.

However, a really good PR team will try to ensure that all possible reputational risks are mapped out and prepared for in advance. This allows potential crises to be resolved before they become a threat and ensures the company is equipped to manage a crisis efficiently.

In this article we will share the best practices for preparing a business for a PR crisis in part one and handling a crisis once it breaks into the public domain in part two.

Part one - Preparation

Business continuity planning

A business continuity plan (BCP) is a set of documented processes that most businesses create in the early days and maintain as the company grows. It maps out potential risks that could severely impact the running of the business and identifies processes that should be put in place to ensure the company continues to function.

Reputation risks should be included in the business continuity plan. The PR team, along with external advisors, should be involved in mapping out how the risks identified in the BCP could impact the business’ reputation.

The following areas of a BCP should include an assessment of reputation risk:

  1. An overview of what constitutes a crisis and the different forms a crisis could take

  2. A risk register that is updated on a half-yearly basis, or ad-hoc if a specific risk is identified

  3. A clear process for identifying and monitoring issues including social media channels

  4. Identify who should be involved in handling a crisis, creating a response team and allocation of roles. This should include all relevant internal stakeholders, including senior spokespeople, legal & compliance, IT and web management, but importantly should also include external advisors, including PR advisors, legal advisors, data security specialists etc

  5. Understanding when an issue becomes a crisis; has the event or set of circumstances already harmed people, the environment, company/brand reputation or business continuity/performance? Is it already in the public domain? Does it require immediate management attention? You should put in place a clear internal process for escalating issues, including international issues across all parts of the organisation.

  6. A clear crisis response process, including details for how to convene the response team both in working hours (on site and in a separate, back-up location) and out of hours. It should also include details of all necessary passwords for social accounts, websites etc.

Communications protocols

With the reputational impact of potential crises mapped out in the BCP, the PR team needs to set out communications protocols to follow if a crisis were to emerge.

Communications protocols will ensure that the people who need to be involved, priorities and responsibilities are clear from the outset of any issue arising.

The process for setting out communications protocols should include the following:

  1. Looking at your channels of communications and current methods of reaching key audiences - the same channels should be used in a crisis

  2. Template messages. Analysing existing messaging or statements on previous or issues and putting together template responses that can be adapted when an issue emerges

  3. Collateral for a crisis response toolkit. More template documents, including key messages and Q&A documents, that can be quickly adapted to the emerging issue and referred to during a crisis

  4. A comprehensive stakeholder contact list to include employees, investors, media, customers, regulators and policy makers etc.

  5. Stakeholder audience analysis, identifying key audiences, access points and priorities, and understanding how messages may need tailoring to meet their needs.

By having processes and protocols in place ahead of a crisis breaking into the public sphere your business will be in the best possible position to avoid the crisis altogether, resolve it before it becomes public, and handle a crisis well if it does go public.

Crises can come from any part of the business and being notified as early as possible is the key to handling it effectively. Instilling a culture of openness, where employees feel confident in highlighting issues, voicing concerns, and sharing mistakes is crucial.


Part two - Handling a crisis when it breaks

In our experience a crisis can move very quickly and often in the public eye, which is why the media often has to be the primary ‘stakeholder’, however stories can spiral across many channels.

It is often not long after an organisation finds out about a crisis situation that customers have also twigged something might be wrong and take to social media, your website or call the organisation for details.

Speed and efficiency are key, so we are sharing our tried and tested advice on processes and procedures to ensure the issue is handled as efficiently as possible.

It’s scary when you receive an initial phone call from a journalist about an issue the company is facing.

Take control of the narrative

When it’s clear a crisis is going to break into the public sphere, it’s important to take control and ensure your messages are dominant in the public domain.

If you don’t take control, others will fill the void and you may find third parties who don’t know the full story or who may want to embellish the truth are in the driving seat.

When you receive your first phone call or email from a journalist, make sure you keep your cool - you don’t need to say anything immediately. Calmly find out what they would like to know and when their deadline is.

Here is how to respond to the issue and take control of the story:

  1. Gather as much information as possible - take time to get your head around the issue, make sure you understand the cause, the implications, the people affected etc. Agree how much information you can share publicly with your CEO and relevant stakeholders.

  2. Prepare and share statements - ‘no comment’ is not your friend! Not commenting on an issue publicly is a sure fire way to come across as evasive and allow others to take control.

Communicating in a crisis can be difficult with emotions running high. It helps to think logically about what needs to be said and refer to the messaging documents you created in your preparation phase. One common mistake is to ‘over communicate’ or drip feed information out. It is better to stick to communications around three key stages and ensure communications are consistent with all audiences:

First response:

  • This is factual – details of the incident and what is known. Often a written statement across website, social media

  • Stakeholders including regulator alerted if needed

The second response:

  • Once more is known you can provide a full update to the media and other stakeholders, this time headed by the CEO

  • Again this should be factual, informative. It should acknowledge the problem and be ‘human’

  • This can be updated and what is known evolves but you should avoid a ‘running commentary’

  • [Regulatory stakeholders will obviously be treated differently as they will need all the facts]

Third response:

  • This is usually issued once more is known about the solution or as the situation starts to be resolved

  • This should include lessons learnt

  1. Utilise background briefings - as well as providing a public statement, you can also brief journalists on background. This means sharing information that gives them context around the issue and helps them to understand it better. This is usually off the record, and should be done over the phone where possible, however when speaking to journalists you should only share information that you are prepared to see in print.

  2. Offer a spokesperson and make sure they are prepared - in most cases your spokesperson will be your CEO - this demonstrates that you are taking the matter seriously. It’s good to make strong spokespeople available to journalists, they will be able to build a connection with the journalist and offer helpful background briefings that lead to more accurate reporting.

Take time to make sure your spokesperson is well versed in the issue, that they can deliver your statement and answer questions around it. Role playing a media interview is good to stress test their responses.

Communicate across all your channels

While the media is often the primary stakeholder for a PR team during a crisis, it’s important to communicate directly with other stakeholders, including customers and employees as well.

Use the communications protocols set out in your preparation phase to make sure you know which channels you need to communicate through and tailor your message for the audiences you want to reach through each channel.

The following are the communications channels you will likely need to use:

  • The company website is the primary source of public information, in most instances. Statements and information should be clear, concise and prominent. They should include a ‘last updated’ time, so stakeholders can see when anything has changed

  • Customer updates. Customer communications should be delivered across emails, website, social media and call centres. Agree in advance how customers will and won’t be communicated with. Look to direct customers to your company website to ensure call centres are not inundated with enquiries

  • Briefing customer service staff is also vital. In the case of a crisis, there is likely to be a sharp increase in calls and it’s important that any employees who may be contacted by customers have a script and lines to use

  • Social media channels should be managed effectively, as rumours can spread quickly online. With these channels, the aim should be to redirect stakeholders to your own channels (such as the website). You may choose to pin a tweet / statement to the top of a channel, respond to posts individually, or take conversations offline

  • Traditional media. Be certain of the information you provide, and all messages are agreed before releasing to the media / speaking to journalists. The initial disclosure can set the tone for how the narrative around an issue builds

  • Keep employees informed. It’s important that all employees from senior level to front of house staff are aware of any issue and to ensure they do not talk to the media. Work out how best to communicate with them – email, text, face to face briefing and provide them with a clear brief on actions expected of them.

It’s also important that messages are aligned across all stakeholder channels. Communications to regulators and employees may be leaked to the media so all communications need to be joined up.

Communicate with honesty, clarity and humility

When communicating about a crisis it’s important to be clear about what has happened, why, and what you are doing about it.

Of course, you may not be able to, or may not want to, share everything, but it pays off to share as much as you possibly can in a clear manner, with humility. Don’t lie under any circumstances!

Journalists, and other stakeholders, don’t like to feel they are being given half truths or spun a line. If they feel you aren’t being completely honest, or that you aren’t taking the issue seriously, you run the risk of greater reputational damage.

These are a few tips to keep in mind when preparing your statement:

  • Don’t pass the blame, the issue may be the fault of a partner, supplier etc. Don’t be tempted to pass on the blame or name the responsible party, take responsibility.

  • Be brief and to the point, give clear facts on what is known and try not to ramble, this can be perceived as evasive.

  • Be honest and explain what the issue is, why it happened and how you are rectifying the problem.

  • Limit scope as soon as you can. e.g. If there has been no financial loss, say so. Make sure you are clear around what has and hasn’t been impacted

  • Share any actions customers need to take

    • Acknowledge that not all facts are known but provide clear guidance

    • Explain what the company is doing to rectify the situation

  • Be clear on what the organisation will do and the only channels customers should look at for updates or receive information from (so they don’t get hit by fraudsters calling them up on the back of the attack).

Monitor the situation constantly

Once the news of the crisis has broken it’s important to keep track of media coverage and social media conversations, to know who is writing what and how the story is evolving.

Inaccuracy can become rife, and it’s not helpful for there to be multiple versions of the story out there. You need to spot inaccurate reporting quickly and ask journalists to make changes to correct their articles.

Avoid a resurgence

Once a crisis has died down you need to ensure it doesn’t re-emerge. Take a look at your communications and marketing plans and ensure you don’t proactively bring up the issue again.

If you had a problem with a product, avoid marketing it for a while and be careful about the topics you engage on.

Following more serious crises it's advisable to postpone all communications for a period of time. When you begin to re-engage with the media you may well find that the crisis is referenced, but this should dissipate over time.

Reflect and evaluate

Crises are good learning opportunities. Once it’s over, take time to evaluate how you handled the issue, what went well and what could have gone better.

Share your evaluation with your core group of crisis handlers and improve your processes for next time.

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