PR Crisis: How to Make a Plan Before You Need it

The risk of a PR crisis has increased dramatically since the adoption of social media for brand marketing. Customer complaints once saved for private phone calls or water cooler chats now exist permanently on the Internet for all to see.

Because of that, there has been a dramatic shift in the need for public relations crisis management. And for good reason.

Sometimes, social media itself is the cause of a crisis. Remember when Snapchat thought joking about domestic violence was funny? Or when the US Airforce made a joke about bombing Afghanistan?

Like the above examples, some crises are self-made. But, most likely, there will come a time when something outside of your organization’s control creates a major problem for you and/or with your customers.

PR crises may not be predictable, but they can be manageable. By following the proper steps, your organization can be prepared for a crisis well before it hits.

What Does a Crisis Look Like?

Not everything is a crisis. Bad reviews or mean social media posts do not often rise to the standards of a true crisis. However, there are plenty of things that do.

  • Product recalls – Product recalls are both necessary and dangerous for brands. Be sure to communicate the problem and your corrective actions with customers and stakeholders before additional people are put at risk or injured.
  • Executive-level health emergencies – Steve Jobs’ illness created a crisis for the Apple brand. In such circumstances, it’s important to communicate compassion, empathy, and confident plans for the future.
  • Supply chain disruptions – Strikes, storms, and geopolitics can cause disruptions to international importing and exporting. Your customers shouldn’t be left in the dark. Counter speculation with regular public updates.
  • Competitor crisis – If a competitor in your industry finds itself in hot water over a product recall or security breach, your company should activate its own crisis management plan to mitigate any splash damage that may occur due to your organization’s association with the industry.
  • Corruption – Separating your brand from a disgraced former employee or executive can be hard, but it is a requirement during a corruption scandal. Be sure your audience knows that the company is much larger than any single individual employed there.
  • Sexual harassment – The #MeToo movement is an extraordinary force for good. If harassment claims pop up at your organization, take them seriously and investigate to your fullest extent.
    Involve police when a crime may have taken place. Always listen and always protect the victim.
  • Influencer complaints – While a Tweet from a random customer might not be a crisis, complaints from celebrities definitely can be. Always be responsive, honest and open, and never ignore viral complaints from influencers.

How To Be Prepared Before a Crisis

There are a number of steps that can be taken before a public relations emergency critically damages your organization’s reputation. Knowing what to do and having things prepared beforehand is the best way to successfully navigate a crisis situation.

Collect Contact Details of Key People

Who is the first person you would call in the event of a PR crisis? Experts, friendly journalists, influencers, lawyers, your boss? Know who needs to be looped in and have their contact information ready. Sometimes, the people you need won’t be available. Always have a second and third option for when your primary crisis contact is unavailable.

Draft Messages Before You Need Them

You won’t want to start from scratch in a crisis scenario. Templates for press releases, social media posts, sample interview answers, and more should all be prepared well before a crisis occurs.

Craft a Holding Statement

A holding statement is a way for your organization to let clients, customers, and stakeholders know that you recognize the crisis at hand and are working to solve it. A holding statement should be used when a significant event or crisis has occurred, but details are still being gathered. An example of a holding statement looks like this:

We are deeply saddened to confirm the incident at our Fort Wayne, Ind. facility which resulted in an employee being injured. The employee is currently receiving medical attention and we have been in contact with his family. While the cause of the accident is currently unknown, we are doing everything possible to provide answers and support to the family, while keeping all in the area safe. We will provide continued updates throughout the day.

Empower Brand Ambassadors and Influencers

In the same way an influencer can hurt a brand (see Kylie Jenner dissing Snapchat, resulting in a $1.3 billion market loss), influencers can be helpful when responding to a brand crisis. Your company should identify local voices, industry players, or experienced users of your products to defend you from negative press.

But that doesn’t mean introducing new faces that your audience has never seen before during a crisis. Instead, it is best to leverage relationships you’ve already developed with influencers who your clientele will recognize and who know the value of your products or services.

How Should You Respond to a Crisis?

To start, take a deep breath. However you choose to respond to a crisis, know that it is permanent. Do not rush your response.

That doesn’t mean you should spend a week drafting the perfect response. By then it will be too late and people will have solidified their feelings towards your brand.

The best practice is putting together a single Crisis Communications Plan with key contacts, three to four of the most likely scenarios, key messages and audiences, press release templates and holding statements. A Crisis Communications Plan should be vetted by the communications team, the company CEO, and then printed and with each key leader of the organization.
Also, be sure to keep a printed plan in a safe spot outside of the office, just in case access to the building or computer systems are lost.

So remember – be prepared, not surprised. Always plan to tell the truth. Be as transparent as legal conditions permit. Communicate clearly, concisely, truthfully, and transparently. Because no matter what, your goal is to keep your team, customers, clients, stakeholders, and community on your side.

Do you have a crisis communications plan? If not, Nichols can help. Send me an email anytime at