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Crisis Management Guide: How to Manage a PR Crisis in 5 Steps

Wesley Mathew

Jun 14, 2024

In today's always-on social media world, a PR disaster can hit at any time. When a crisis situation hits, how it affects your brand depends on how well-prepared you are. Having a robust crisis management plan in place will help alleviate the blows that come along with a PR mess.

That's why these tips for how to plan when addressing a crisis will come in handy. For an even more in-depth guide check out our Ultimate Guide to Crisis Communications to make sure you’re ready for any contingency.

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

Definition of a PR Crisis

How exactly should a PR crisis be defined? You don’t want to have to jump into crisis management mode unnecessarily, because that in itself could backfire. If you don't pause to verify all facts and information surrounding the perceived issue before responding you could find yourself in hot water. 

Issues vs crises

It’s important to understand the impetus of the chatter and follow the reactions of the media and different online communities. This will help you to gauge the significance of the potential 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? 

If the incident is in fact more of an inconvenient criticism-drizzle rather than a full-blown attack-storm, you don’t want to overreact. 

Poorly managed issues can become crises - but the terms "issues" and "crises" should not be used interchangeably and should be handled differently. Here’s a handy guide with 5 common issues that don’t need to become crises if handled effectively.

As illustrated by, the key differences between an issue and a crisis are as follows:

  • Impact – A situation or event is usually a crisis if it threatens lives, the environment, or the organization’s reputation. While an issue can have an impact, it is usually not critical.
  • Urgency – If you are under immediate pressure to make decisions and resolve a problem, a crisis is likely to be at play. On the contrary, issues management usually allows time to assess all avenues and make considered decisions.
  • Time – While an issue can span weeks, months, and even years, crises generally have a clear start and end (albeit the 'end' may feel like it's dragging out!). Issues management involves a sustained effort of activity and monitoring over time, whereas crisis management is an immediate response.
  • Not “business as usual” – Responding to a crisis requires people to stop their usual business activity and put their full focus on resolving the situation. An issue, on the other hand, can be managed as part of “business as usual” operations.

Since crises often arise from multiple, smaller issues compounding, issues management is a way to tackle risks that have the potential to halt business as usual. It includes identifying, assessing, and responding to a situation that has caused disturbance to business activity (but not the business at large).

What is Crisis Management?

Crisis management for brands and companies refers to the steps a company takes to identify and diffuse a PR crisis. Managing a PR disaster is never fun. But effective crisis management comes from having a solid step-by-step plan in place, including a communication management plan that will allow you to respond in a timely and genuine manner. Depending on the severity, breadth, and touchpoints necessary to address a crisis, your crisis management strategy will look a little different each time. 

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 rolls in.)

As we all know, social media is where all the latest news is broadcast today. If you lead a company, taking a proactive approach to partner with your social media team can have an enormous impact on your crisis management. Making friends with the social media team now will help you later if (when) a crisis starts to flicker (or catches fire). They own the fire extinguisher and there will come a time when you will need to take advantage of their quick access to listening tools, social data, and customer insights.

Phone with Twitter icon.

What is a Crisis Management Plan?

A crisis management plan is a templated strategy for how your business reacts to and addresses a crisis on social media or in the news. It should be written in such a way that you can adapt it to each specific situation.

A PR News/Nasdaq survey says nearly half of all companies are operating without a crisis communications plan. With the combination of mobile devices, the social saturation of markets, and our always-on 24/7 culture, even the smallest organizations are vulnerable to a trial by public scrutiny.

Having a crisis plan goes a long way toward making sure crises are dealt with in a smooth and effective way. It lays out important steps to take, and key stakeholders that need to remain involved and be notified at crucial times. In templatizing the flow of information you can ensure swift copy approval for social posts, press releases, and statements, and keep everyone on the same page.

If you don’t already have a communication plan template for your team, it would be a good idea to craft one. You could make one specifically for crises or issues if your business encounters these situations frequently — government organizations or airlines are examples of industries that may want to consider this. With a communication management plan you'll be able to compile phrases and nomenclature you use on a regular basis, to make drafting your communications for a particular incident go more quickly.

5 Key Steps for Managing a PR Crisis

Once you’ve determined a crisis situation, you need to address it as quickly as possible. Here are 5 important steps to effective crisis management. 

1. Investigate the origins

Using social listening and media monitoring tools, identify the important spikes in the conversation, and (if it’s already reached the news cycle) assess how it’s being covered by journalists. Make sure you understand what happened to ignite it as fully as possible, and the extent of the damage, so you can craft a crisis response specific to the situation. Use your findings to decide on corporate positioning and messaging for your communications. 

Armed with the full story and an understanding of the potential impact on your business you will have a clearer idea of the position your company should take. 

2. Make decisions on distribution channels 

Based on your corporate positioning and overall messaging you need to determine the best channel(s) for delivery. These days there are many PR channels to consider: posting on a corporate blog, on social media, and distributing a press release are some of the most popular — most likely you’ll use a combination of these options for crisis communications. 

Keep in mind the basic differences and stakeholders in each channel. Social media is a fantastic choice if you are prepared for a dialogue. Understand that it will be difficult to control your message here, but if the crisis started on social, you should absolutely respond there. A press release or a blog post are great options if you want to craft a longer message that helps you more tightly control the conversation. Every situation will be different, and you’ll need to use the info you’ve gathered thus far to decide on the best distribution.

3. Respond in a timely manner

Person holding a wristwatch. Respond to PR crises quickly to demonstrate you care and acknowledge the issue.

While the above prep work in steps 1 and 2 is essential, be very careful not to wait too long before responding. This could result in a secondary crisis and your brand is already being cast in a negative light. Don’t make your negative PR worse by giving the impression that you’re hiding something, or don’t care enough about the situation to issue a response.

Depending on the severity, it’s possible that a fully crafted response will take several hours. In this case, ensure that you at least post something to acknowledge you’re aware of the issue and will release a statement or provide further details as soon as possible. These simple gestures go a long way to diffusing tension online, and are pillars of a good crisis management plan.

4. Monitor reaction

Is the 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.

With your message out in the world, circle back with your public facing teams to gauge how your crisis communications are being received. A media intelligence platform enables you to track how people are responding and how sentiment is shifting. Use it to 
compare by keyword and sentiment what’s being
 said on social vs. in the press vs. other key players who are trying to shape the message (such as your competitors or government officials). Doing so can help you target your communications and customize them further by channel and audience.

5. Report back

Make sure you thoroughly summarize how the crisis began and what was done to resolve it. This is important information to share with internal leadership teams and stakeholders like investors. Was your plan for addressing the issues effective?

Tracking sentiment around your brand name prior to, during, and after the crisis is a good way to illustrate the severity and track if / when you come back down to normal parameters. If the sentiment rating remains more negative than before the crisis, it’s clear you need to reset your benchmarks and probe further to see if you need to do more damage control. 

Real-World Crisis Management Examples

Woman in office on the phone with laptop.

The theory behind good crisis management is all well and good, but how does it look when applied in the real world?  

There are two common denominators in each of these examples that helped them from becoming larger PR disasters: communication and action. Clear and decisive action coupled with thoughtful and direct communication are essential components when executing your crisis management strategy. 

Here are three great crisis management examples from real companies that were faced with a PR crisis and dealt with it effectively:

1. Gucci’s balaclava sweater debacle

In 2019, upscale clothing and accessories brand Gucci found themselves in hot water due to the unfortunate resemblance their new balaclava sweater line bore to Blackface.

Gucci addressed the crisis swiftly, and humbly. They released a statement acknowledging their mistake and took immediate action by pulling the merchandise. Their statement also identified the misstep as a “learning opportunity” indicating their openness and willingness to grow from this experience. 

2. Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad at the Super Bowl

Super Bowl ads are a very unfortunate arena for a brand to face a PR crisis. The Super Bowl is watched by millions of people every year (some only tuning in for the ads). 

So when Pepsi was thrown into major crisis management mode, after the ad they produced for the 2017 Super Bowl faced tremendous backlash on Twitter, they knew their response would extra amplified. The ad seemingly made light of the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests, indicating that sharing a Pepsi would be enough to establish peace and common ground. The ad wildly missed the mark, and the negative response was swift:

Pepsi issued a statement taking ownership of the misstep. They also took immediate action by promptly removing the ad from any further air time. 

The response to their apology was lukewarm, and unlike Gucci, they did not address the incident by promising to take it as a learning opportunity. But they did choose to pull the ad which is a powerful acknowledgment of the public opinion, making this a good example of crisis management.

3. Personal Tweet on corporate account - American Red Cross

On the lighter side of PR crisis management is a mistake that, honestly, we’re surprised doesn’t happen more often: posting to a corporate social media account when you think you’re posting to your personal account. While embarrassing and inconvenient, this type of crisis, if caught quickly, can end up being more positive than negative. In fact, what most companies fail to take advantage of is the humanizing opportunity a PR crisis can present — using is as a chance to laugh at themselves is definitely a crisis management tactic, one used by American Red Cross in this incident from 2011: 

Instead of overreacting, American Red Cross took the mistake in stride and good humor. They deleted the Tweet and acknowledged the mistake with a simple follow-up:

 As a serious organization with a serious mission, American Red Cross could have easily exacerbated this into a much larger PR crisis, especially considering the original Tweet mentioned alcohol use. But they were able to recognize the seriousness of alcohol use with their “take away the keys” line and the matter was put to rest, but not before the aforementioned Dogfish Head Brewery also got in on the fun, encouraging donations to the American Red Cross using the original Tweeter’s fun hashtag.

For 3 additional crisis management examples, see how Marvel, City of Detroit, and the Wonder Woman marketing team successfully dealt with PR crises.

Ready to take your crisis management strategy to the next level? Contact us to schedule a demo of our social listening & media monitoring tools today.