A public relations (PR) crisis can ambush a business at any time, entangling it with some pretty sinister repercussions. Social media backlash, enduring embarrassment, and a reputation in ruins can add up to catastrophe. In an instant, brand reputations painstakingly built over time—and often at great expense—can be diminished beyond repair.
Let’s face it: In today’s ever-connected world, a PR crisis of some sort may be virtually inevitable, regardless of whether you are a startup or a major enterprise. Anything from a faulty product to a data breach to a sexual harassment accusation against an employee can be the impetus for a crisis. This negative news can then spread at lightning speed, not just across the street but around the world. Some companies never recover.
It’s essential to formulate an action plan to combat the potential fallout of a PR crisis. An immediate, strategic response can minimize damage to your brand’s reputation and accelerate its recovery.
How to prepare
Putting a response plan in place is the first step toward managing a PR crisis. Here are some key steps to take:
- Brainstorm. Identify as many potential crisis scenarios and responses as possible.
- Select a response team. Determine who will play which roles during a PR crisis. Establish a chain of command within the organization. Also, designate a primary spokesperson or persons, preferably an authoritative figure, to be the “face” of the company during the crisis.
- Determine which communication channels to use. Your internal stakeholders need to know whether to look for updates via email, text, or phone call. For external outreach, have at least a working idea regarding the use of news releases and news conferences, media interviews, direct social media exchanges with the general public, etc.
- Prepare preliminary “generic” statements. These can be used as the crisis breaks while more information is gathered. An early response, even if it’s preliminary, shows that you are engaged. An example: “We are aware of the situation and share the concerns of everyone involved. We are cooperating with relevant agencies and are conducting a thorough internal investigation. We will provide more information as quickly as possible.”
- Practice all of the above. Ongoing training for the designated spokesperson(s) is particularly important.
How to respond to a PR crisis
Even with a plan in place, there are additional protocols to follow once you are in full-blown PR crisis mode. Keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t hide. Even if it’s too early to formulate a meaningful response, be visible. Staying in front of the story where possible gives the public confidence that you are investigating the issues. Make sure your spokespersons have the information needed to answer questions.
- Get a grasp on the scope of media coverage ASAP. A media monitoring service can track who is saying what and where. If reports have gone viral on social media or your company has made the national news, you need to know.
- Don’t lie or deflect. If your company is in the wrong but is not in a position to admit it yet, it’s better to say nothing than to intentionally mislead. Lying or covering up information likely will come back to haunt you.
- Don’t jump right into implicating outside parties. Doing this will make you look bad. If your company is exonerated, the facts will come out soon enough.
- Show emotion. A stoic approach can make your company come across as indifferent to the issue that prompted the firestorm. You can display empathy without admitting blame, while also delivering the message that real people with human emotions are taking charge.
- Take advantage of social media. Make sure your response includes social media outreach. Users will share your response, thus helping to spread your spin on the situation.
- Gauge the reaction. If multiple sources are ridiculing your response, take heed. Stubbornly sticking by an inadequate response will only exacerbate your PR nightmare.
Whatever the likelihood of a PR crisis hitting your business, the bottom line is that there is no downside to being prepared. It could mean the difference between the crisis exploding into a colossal catastrophe or winding up as a relatively manageable matter.
David H Lasker is founder and CEO of News Exposure, a digital content solutions company specializing in media research and monitoring. Lasker has over 25 years of experience in the industry and focuses on TV and radio broadcast monitoring, media intelligence, and PR analysis.