PR Crisis Management: Always Be Prepared

November 15, 2013  | By Catherine Seeds

photo credit: PR Pret-A-Porter, Crisi Management: Titanic Case post

Over the past several months, my Netflix account and I have been BFF’s. After listening to my colleagues go on and on about all of the great television series I’ve missed out on over the past, oh, eight years, I decided it was my mission to become more cultured in my television viewing, and ditch shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. I started with AMC’s Mad Men, then made my way through NBC’s Friday Night Lights – television at its best in my opinion.

Most recently, I’ve started watching ABC’s Scandal and AMC’s The Walking Dead and realize that both shows have a common central theme – crisis management on steroids! Both shows deal with crises in very different ways – obviously taking down zombies is much different than taking down a dirty politician in Washington D.C.  But, the chosen profession for the main characters in each show very clearly includes “crisis management” in their job description.  Olivia Pope on Scandal is a political “fixer” which means she is a lawyer/PR specialist who handles the problems of the rich and powerful in Washington D.C. Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead is a local sheriff in small town Georgia, leading a rag tag group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world and constantly tries to figure out how not to get overrun by herds of hungry zombies.

But, in the real world, crisis management involves more than a highly paid TV writing team and good actors.  You need to have a plan. If you don’t have a crisis management plan solidified for your organization, there are plenty of resources available online for professionals in all industries. For PR executives, I suggest taking a look at the blog “10 Steps to Managing a PR Crisis” written by Marc Cowlin of Meltwater News.

Marc’s blog includes his playbook of crisis communication best practices that he’s learned over time.  His tips for a seamless PR crisis include:

Take a deep breath. When a PR crisis comes about the first thing you need to do is: nothing.  Stop, close your eyes and take five slow deep breaths. We make better decisions when we are calm and in control than we do when we are panicked.

Circle the wagons.  Take a few minutes to get in touch with all customer facing employees (other PR team members, the social media team, customer service, etc.) Brief them on what happened, the steps you will follow to react to the issue, initial instructions on how/if they should communicate externally, expected timeline for reaction and how they can help.

Investigate what happened. Now that you’re calm and everyone’s informed, you need to get the full story. Use your connections in the organization to determine exactly what happened. You need to know the entire story from an internal perspective, and how your customers perceive the incident externally.

Understand business impact. Is this PR crisis having an immediate impact on business? Will it have a future impact on the business? Before you react, it’s important to know how your decisions will impact the business, revenue and your brand reputation. 

LISTEN UP! Use your PR and social media monitoring tools to take the pulse on the reaction of the media and your community. This step will tell you if the crisis has made it to the attention of your customers or media yet. From there your goal is to gauge the significance of the PR crisis: just how big is this issue?

Decide on corporate position and messaging. Armed with the full story, an understanding of the business impact, and a complete picture of the reaction so far, you will have a clear idea of the position your company should take. From there you can write up a quick messaging platform and get buy in from your executive team.

Make decisions on channels of distribution. Based on your corporate positioning and overall messaging, you need to determine the channel/s that best deliver them to your audience. These days there are many channels to consider: you can post on your corporate blog, through social media, in a press release, directly to the media, or a combination. When making this decision, keep in mind the basic differences in each channel. Every situation will be different, and you’ll need to use the info you’ve gathered so far to decide on the best distribution.

Get the word out. You’ve done your homework, gotten the buy-in on messaging, and have decided on distribution channels.  It’s now time to get your message out to the channels you’ve chosen.

Monitor reaction and react as needed. With your message out in the world, you need to circle back with your public facing teams. Is your PR crisis still a crisis? What happens next will ultimately depend on the reaction of the media, your community and in social media. There are no hard and fast rules and you’ll need to make the call in real time.

Learn from the process. Everything you learn will help your company understand how to avoid future crisis and will help you to efficiently managing your next crisis. Take what you’ve learned and apply it to the next time you have a fire to extinguish.

As PR professionals, it is our job to be prepared to help guide our clients and teams through a crisis quickly. According to Brian Ellis, owner and executive vice president at PadillaCRT, the first 48 hours of any crisis are crunch time. “If you are not ahead of the crisis by that timeframe, it’s likely it will run you over,” says Ellis.

On the flip side, with any given crisis, there is always opportunity. John F. Kennedy once said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

Here’s hoping that the “danger” part of your crisis doesn’t include zombies!