How to Manage a PR and Social Media Crisis in 10 Steps

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Large balloon hovering over a pushpin. Blog post image for how to manage a PR and social media crisis

Do you know how to deal with a public relations crisis? 

In today's always-on social media world, a PR crisis can hit at any time. When (and if) a crisis situation hits and whether or not it affects your brand depends on how well-prepared you are. That's why these tips for addressing a crisis come in handy. When you're ready to wade in deeper, download our ebook, Media Intelligence for Crisis Communications and know you're ready for any contingency.

Here’s a secret: most of us enjoy the challenge and the rush of crisis communications, once we discover a way to manage the process.

Of course, you don’t ever want to be in a crisis situation, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds. These steps can make a public relations crisis manageable.

10 Step PR Crisis Management Playbook

1: Take a deep breath.

First of all, close your eyes, and take five slow deep breaths. Why? You need to be calm; your team is depending on you. If you’re calm you will be better able to control the situation and keep everyone else on the team calm. We make better decisions when we are calm. You may need to repeat this a few times.

Step 1 Crisis Management

2: Circle the wagons. 

Get in touch with all customer-facing employees (other PR team members, the social media team, customer service, etc.). Brief them on what has 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. I suggest asking each of these folks to begin tracking the PR crisis on their individual channels using media monitoring tools (more on that later) and keep you informed of all developments.

3: Investigate what happened before crafting a crisis response. 

Now that you’re calm and everyone’s informed (which will drastically reduce your inbox submissions from your colleagues), you need to get the full story. Use your connections in the organisation to determine exactly what happened. You need to know the entire story from an internal perspective, and how your customers perceive the incident externally. This can be the most time-consuming step, but also the most important: Do not react to a PR crisis if you don’t know exactly what happened and why it happened.

4: 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.  This step will be very important as you begin to make decisions on messaging and your overall corporate stance on the crisis.

Smartphone with Headphones on wooden table iPhone


Use your PR and social media monitoring tools to understand the reaction of the media and your community. This step will help you to gauge the significance of the PR crisis. Just how big is this issue? Are there hundreds of people talking about this incident, or only a few? What is the overall sentiment? Are people supporting you? Is the media reacting? Have any stories been published?

6: Decide on corporate position and messaging for your crisis response. 

Armed with the full story, an understanding of the potential impact on your business, and a complete picture of the reaction so far, you will have a clear idea of the position your company should take. From there decide on how you will respond and get buy-in from your executive team. Use the data from social listening, and your previous experience to illustrate that you’ve got the situation under control.

7: 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 or a combination. Keep in mind the basic differences in each channel. Social media a fantastic choice if you are prepared for a dialogue and know it will be hard to control your message. A Press release or a blog post are great options if you want to broadcast and control the conversations around your message. Every situation will be different, and you’ll need to use the info you’ve gathered so far to decide on the best distribution.

Note: People are increasingly taking to social media to voice their opinion on a brand crisis. Just because you don’t respond to the crisis on social media doesn’t mean people won’t talk about the statement. If a lot of the complaints are originating from social, it’s probably worth posting your message on there.

8: Setup a crisis communications framework.

Whenever a company is going through a PR disaster, they usually improvise on a possible solution as they go. SiriusDecisions suggests that preparing a framework prior to the need for it is a more effective way to confront a problem.

Here are the elements:

Elements of a crisis framework

Below we pull out different elements of this framework and show you how to use it the next time a PR crisis occurs.

9: Monitor reaction and react as needed. 

You’re not done yet! With your message out in the world, you need to circle back with your public facing teams and monitor. Is your PR crisis still a crisis? What happens next will ultimately depend on the reaction of the media, your community on social media, etc. As you monitor, keep in mind that it can take a few days for a fire to die down. Sometimes you need to be patient and give it time, other times you may need to step in and offer additional statements or interviews.

10: Learn from the process. 

No one wants to see a problem pop up, but I promise you one thing: no matter how things go, you will learn something valuable. Everything you learn will help your company understand how to avoid future challenges and will help you to efficiently manage the next precarious situation your brand faces. Part of this learning comes from ongoing monitoring.

Bonus 11—Unwind. 

You’ve had an intense few hours (or days). Get back into a good headspace with a drink, nice food or some exercise. Whatever works for you!

So I’m not a real fireman, but I like to tell my kids that if I worked in a firehouse I’d be the chief. They still don’t let me wear a fire hat in public, but they are coming around. And my local fire station won’t let me drive the fire truck – for some reason they reject my claims that I’m an extension of their team and have asked me to stop dropping by…  oh, well, at least the Dalmatian likes me. I guess I’ll stick to PR and leave the real fires to the experts.

Getting Ahead 

Getting ahead of a crisis might mean that you’re the first to publicize it. When a Southwest Airlines flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York skidded on the runway and landed nose first, the airline posted news of the accident on Twitter and Facebook within minutes, promising updates.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines post crisis

Within minutes, they received thank yous for their openness. If a bad news story is going to come out either way, and you already know about it, why not get credit for having the integrity to bring it to the public’s attention? Southwest Airlines was first to report the story and was commended for getting ahead of fear and questioning.

Nearly one in four brands don’t have a set crisis communication plan in place. 

And considering 80% of customers use social media to engage with a brand during a crisis, not having a plan in place could be more detrimental than you think as a tweetstorm roles in.

In the digital communication landscape, it’s crucial to have a process in place to know how and when to communicate during a crisis properly. What’s even more important? Taking the proper steps before the crisis hits; You could call it a pre-plan plan. 

Now, let’s go through the five steps to take to prepare for a social media crisis. (All of these steps, are outlined in the infographic below). 

How to Prepare for a Social Media Crisis 

Step 1: Use Social Listening & Media Monitoring to Create Alerts

You can’t manage a crisis if you don’t know one is happening. By using a social media listening or media monitoring platform to monitor conversations around your brand, your team can prevent a negative tweet from becoming a full-blown crisis. Not only can these tools give you some advanced warning, but they can also help you capture brand sentiment, a leading indicator. 

Need help identifying potential social media crises? Download our crisis management eBook for more tips on how social listening & media monitoring can help you spot a disaster waiting to happen. 

Step 2: Form a Cross-Departmental Crisis Response Team

Identify the key individuals who will serve as the spokespeople, liaisons, and decision-makers when a crisis hits. Your social media crisis response team will likely include individuals from all different rungs on the hierarchical ladder. 

It would be best if you aimed to create a cross-departmental unit with members from your marketing, sales, customer service, and executive leadership teams. Then once a crisis has occurred, you can more easily distribute information to your entire organization. 

Step 3: Establish a Crisis Chain of Command

When the time comes to alert your crisis response team of a real issue, there should be a transparent escalation process already outlined. This document should include the contact information for each member of the crisis response team. 

Remember, not every negative mention or review will require the attention of your crisis response team, so it’s essential to discuss with your team what defines a crisis at your organization.

Step 4: Create Several Response Templates

Accurate and timely communication is key during a crisis. So, when an emergency arises, you don’t want to be scrambling to create a press release template or drafting a tweet. Prepare the communications materials you believe you could need ahead of time. This is why it’s important to discuss with your team what constitutes a crisis for your organization. Based on the outcome of those conversations, you can begin drafting communications material for each of the predetermined scenarios.

Step 5: Do a Practice Run

Think of this step like a fire drill in elementary school. Test out how quickly your crisis response team can assemble and whether or not the escalation procedures worked. By taking this step, you’ll be able to identify—and correct—any issues that may arise. 

By taking these steps ahead of time, your organization will be better equipped to handle a crisis. Music to any communications professional’s ears. Now, what steps should you take during a PR or social media crisis? 

This easy to follow checklist covers the how-tos when managing a PR or social media crisis, broken down step by step. 

What steps match your teams’ current plan?

What can we learn from this and how do we better it?

woman sitting on desk learning

Make use of all your communication channels: Communicate with your audience using the same channels you always do. Centralizing all relevant information on your website even though your audience is used to hearing from you on Twitter or YouTube will inevitably leave them hanging and dissatisfied with how you handled things.

Keep in mind that you’ll be measured on:

  • Speed: Even in the best of times, people want fast results. Acknowledge the problem quickly and deliver updates as you address it.
  • Transparency: It’s getting harder and harder to keep secrets. Getting ahead of a crisis means sharing what you know and being open about your commitment to a solution.
  • Relatability: You will also be judged by how easy you make it for people to find and understand what they want to know. A media intelligence tool will indicate if your message is sticking (reach), how people feel about it (sentiment), and if it’s being amplified (engagement). 

It's important to know your audience: 

That said, different people care about different things. Customize the message and channels you use to reach each stakeholder group.

Find ways to be heard: 

Media intelligence also allows you to find the best ways to amplify your message. Earned, owned, and paid media all play a unique role in making yourself heard:

  • Earned media: Go to your social media channels to communicate directly to your followers. If your message affects them, you can count on them sharing it with their community. At this point journalists may be paying attention to these channels too. If your message resonates, you’ll get more positive earned media through them.
  • Owned media: Your website and emails are both great ways to provide information. Make sure that the scale of the risk is reflected by the prominence you give to it on your site. Ask yourself if it merits a website banner or just a mention on your company news page.
  • Paid media: On social, you can consider whether to replace scheduled paid media (like sponsored posts on Twitter) and use those slots to address concerns or queries. Paid media can help you target your communications to the people who are most affected or most vocal in their criticisms.

What to Look For

  • Customers: Customers are usually the most directly affected by a crisis. Understanding the negative impact on them will help you in your resolution. Investors A crisis can also affect your company’s stock price negatively. Find out how the financial community is reacting, taking this into consideration when you communicate with investors.
  • Employees: Employees act as representatives or brand ambassadors for your company. It’s important to provide them with corporate-approved messaging and monitor their public-facing communication regarding the crisis.
  • Influencers: Influencer has come to designate bloggers, social celebrities, analysts, and journalists. Among the first two, some might be advocates for your company and some detractors.
Young woman taking picture of food food blogging

Media intelligence lets you know who is likely to be on your side.

Measure Your Impact as You Go. 

Don’t forget to gauge how your updates are being received. A media intelligence platform enables you to track how people are responding and how sentiment is shifting. When used well, media intelligence provides even more granular views. As your crisis
 takes hold both in social media and in the press,
 you can use your media intelligence platform to 
compare by keyword and sentiment what’s being
 said on social vs. the press vs. other key players who are trying to shape the message (for instance, your competitors or government officials). Doing so can help you target your communications and customize them further by channel and audience.

Know When to Walk Away. 

There is no such thing as shutting down a conversation that’s playing out on Twitter or Facebook. As we’ve seen, your audience will demand that you engage in dialogue. Blocking them from the outset from posting to your feeds will only drive them to others, where they’ll be sure to comment on your strong-arming tactics. But it’s also important to know when to leave the conversation.

If you’ve made all the points you can make, but there is still a vocal minority of detractors who are saying the same thing over and over again, any response you give them will just add fuel to the fire. Stepping away removes the target and gives them less to react to. Earned, owned, and paid media each play a unique role in this.

The best approach is to prepare well before challenges hit. Use our free downloadable ebook, Media Intelligence for Crisis Communications, for a more in-depth approach. Get the full ebook and make sure you have the resources you need, in anticipation of not needing them. (But being ready, in case you do.)