PR Crisis Management: Always Be Prepared

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!

#KeepPRWeird: Top 3 Take-Aways from PRSA 2013 Southwest District Conference

I’m on the PRSA Austin Chapter board and gladly volunteered to serve on the planning committee for the PRSA 2013 Southwest District Conference, which was June 5-7. I had an exciting job as the Special Events Committee Chair, which means that I got to plan the social events. What conference goes without networking and happy hours?

And what networking happy hour goes without a life-size poster board of John Wayne? He went with us everywhere!

Here’s a small group of us keeping it strictly business, of course, at Lustre Pearl during our Rainey Street Pub Crawl. That’s me in the cowgirl hat and glow sticks (yep, glow sticks).

To get back to the REAL reason PR pros from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico and more gathered in the capital city of Texas, we were there to learn how to “Keep PR Weird,” which was the official conference slogan. Not only did David Lieber, Watchdog Investigative Columnist at Dallas Morning News, say that #KeepPRWeird was the best conference slogan he’s seen in 20 years, it was trending locally for both Twitter and Instagram (thanks to our Pub Crawl photo contest), so check out the conversations!

If I had to take three lessons home from the conference, it’d be these:

1. Storytelling is everything.

Stories are the reason humankind has some idea of our past. From the beginning of time, humans have been passing on important information through stories–whether it was carvings in a rock, through song or written down. We still share and remember important information through stories, and we’re wired to think that way. David Lieber, the opening keynote speaker, emphasized the importance of companies and brands telling their stories. Each story should have a hero/heroine, and the story should have a beginning, climax and end. Make sure to describe the problem you’re solving and illustrate the challenges that brought you where you are today–it makes your company seem much more human. And people crave that human touch.

2. Measurement of Social Media? Possible!

Angela Jeffrey, APR, Senior Counsel for CARMA International, presented a session titled, “The R Social Media ROI.” This was a really useful session, because all PR people know what a headache it can be to try and measure anything in PR, let alone social media. Angela is a fan of the AMEC Social Media Valid Framework, and if you are unfamiliar with it, you can read up on it at (a very helpful presentation) or take a look at Angela’s PR News article that breaks it down nicely. According to Angela, “The philosophy behind the guidelines states that to truly demonstrate the value of PR, metrics need to be linked to the business objective of the program, and move beyond measuring outputs to measuring outcomes. The Framework helps you identify suitable metrics for PR and social media programs that take you from cursory to meaningful measures that resound with the C-suite and help you refine your programs.”

Angela gave attendees a very specific 8 step process for measuring social media activity:

  1. Define organizational goals
  2. Research stakeholders and prioritize
  3. Set specific objectives for each key stakeholder group
  4. Set traditional/social media KPIs against each objective
  5. Choose tools and benchmark (using the AMEC Framework)
  6. Analyze the results and compare to costs
  7. Present to management
  8. Measure continuously and improve performance
To learn more about her process, visit and download her latest white paper.

3. An organization can survive a crisis through honesty and passion

The closing keynote was awesome. Katherine McLain, VP of Communications at Livestrong Foundation, spoke on how to overcome a crisis situation, especially when your organization relies on donations. Following the investigation into and admittance of Lance Armstrong’s doping use, the Livestrong Foundation took a hit. Ken Berger, President and CEO of Charity Navigator had said, “[They are] not going to be able to survive if the person who is behind the spirit of [the organization] is in trouble. It is just going to devastate them.” Ouch! What Livestrong ultimately did was focus on the positive: They are there to help people through difficult struggles in their lives. People with cancer. People who need the foundation to assist them with their fight. Livestrong developed a hashtag that helped position them above the controversy: #FightWithUs. They also developed videos that illustrated individual peoples’ battles with cancer. They focused on the positive, distanced themselves from the negative and marched on.

If you want to chat more about what I learned at the PRSA Southwest District Conference, hit me up on Twitter! @CaitlinNew