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Toolbox Tips: Everything You Need to Avoid & Plan for a PR Crisis

Wesley Mathew

May 18, 2020

Today's news, crises, and complaints travel as quickly as thumbs can type. A customer service issue can ruin a brand's reputation and trending hashtags can help a victim of bullying. Being prepared before a crisis hits is the only way to mitigate the damage from one, that's why this excerpt from our ebook, Media Intelligence for Crisis Communications, is only a small part of a larger PR crisis strategy. Download the free ebook for four more necessary steps, examples of crisis mitigation, and additional actionable tips.

Preparing for a PR crisis requires getting out of the mindset that keeps us busy executing and measuring our tactical goals. Just because we have a social media manager who can push a message out in 140 characters or less several times a day doesn’t mean we have a mechanism in place to handle a full-blown PR crisis. That’s why being prepared for a crisis before it begins is the right strategy. Today, we're delving into some of the most important tips but you can access the rest, and get a competitive edge, in our free ebook, Media Intelligence for Crisis Communications.

14 Tips For Avoiding a Public Brand Disaster

1. Make the ethical choice: 

If you only pay attention to one tip on this list, let it be this one. So often I read a story about a company or person that is in the midst of a PR crisis that could have been avoided all together if the right decision were made from the beginning. The spectrum of categories these decisions may fall into is broad, such as giving the proper response to a customer service inquiry,  adding the right features to a product launch, or making a tough call on a product recall simply because it’s the right thing to do. 
The key is to do the right thing. Doing the right thing will always lead to better results and fewer problems. Ethical businesses and people have fewer challenges in the long term; it’s a simple fact.

2. Be transparent: 

Businesses need to be as transparent as possible these days. After all we’re public relations pros, not the CIA; we can be upfront about most things. By remaining transparent, we leave less to the imagination and so there’s less for people to wonder about. If you build transparency into your brand and messaging, your customers will learn to expect it, and in the end you’ll gain the respect that leads to trust. Trusted brands have fewer challenges.

3. Encourage fantastic customer service: 

How many times have you seen a story about a consumer that has been wronged by an evil retail company? If you are anything like me, many times. Many of these situations can be avoided by simply providing great customer service and solving a problem before it has a chance to escalate. In customer service the old adage “the customer is always right” is a simple philosophy that can help prevent risk.

4. Invest in monitoring tools: 

Actively monitoring social media and online media with a great monitoring tool will help you see problems as they brew, before they become big problems. Did I mention that Meltwater provides such monitoring tools?

5. Define Social Media Guidelines: 

In today’s online world it is imperative that some social media guidelines are in place to ensure that employees are not sharing or communicating inappropriate information, publicly. Like you, I’ve seen countless companies make public apologies for the content their employees share on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Prevent that fire by preparing a social media policy.

6. Avoid knee-jerk reactions: 

This tip is quite simple: always think before you react. By fully thinking through how you’ll react to a situation, be they big or small, corporate or personal, you will always reap better results (factoring in time pressure of course). I’ve seen many companies, and celebrities for that matter, cause problems for themselves by quickly shooting off a tweet that simply was not thought through. Think before you act and you’ll avoid unforeseen pitfalls.

7. Create consistent messaging for customer-facing employees: 

Make sure all outward-facing employees have access to accurate messaging that is consistent with you brand. Generally, providing basic messaging will cover your bases so long as employees know how to escalate if conversations veer off-script.  The goal is to make sure everyone knows what can be said and that they understand that everything else should be escalated (within reason).

8. Be responsive: 

Before a story is run that will expose a current brand disaster, you’ll often receive a call or email from a diligent reporter. Do not hide! Get back to that reporter ASAP. Be very transparent and do everything you can to get your story, statement and action plan into their hands. Even if you are not sure what your actions will be, don’t let the message sit. Call back and tell them “we are actively looking into this situation and will be able to provide more information within the hour.” Most reporters will respect that you are working hard to get the answer they need. If you follow rules 1, 2, 3 and 4 in your conversation with the reporter there’s a good chance you’ll come out OK.

9. Add contingency planning to job goals: 

Amidst your daily routine, you might not be able to design a protocol for every potential crisis right away. Pace yourself. Map out two or three crisis protocols per quarter. And make sure that accomplishing this goal is part of your performance review.

10. Search for early warning signs: 

A powerful media intelligence tool doesn’t just monitor your brand mentions. You can use it to set up searches on any number of topics and keep on top of them in all your channels. Start by making a list of the kinds of messages you’ve already put out that have met resistance. At any point, this same resistance might come back, get amplified, and take on a life of its own. You’ll also want to talk with sales reps, customer support, and legal counsel on issues that they’ve encountered. Once you’ve made a list of crisis triggers, create news, and social searches for them.

To help you get started, here are some examples:

  • Executives: 
    Journalists, analysts, and sometimes even customers pay attention to what high-ranking executives say and do. And so should you. Keep on top of their Twitter and Facebook feeds, what videos and blogs they post, and how everything they are putting out into the world is received and amplified.
  • Competitors
    Pay as much attention to competitor brand mentions as you do your own. Their crisis could easily become yours. And if a competitor decides to come after you, you’ll want to know about it first and respond before others have a chance to amplify their message.
  • Industry news:
    Sometimes a PR crisis will hit you by association. By keeping track of how your industry is perceived and any events that might impact it (such as natural disasters or newly introduced legislation) you are prepared to address these issues as an industry leader.
  • Events: 
    Keep track of trending topics related to the event to help prevent speakers and reps from getting caught with their guards down.
  • Controversy: 
    A media intelligence tool enables you to keep track of any number of business and political keywords. You’ll know when hot-button topics are trending and get ready to explain your position on them before you are equated with the fallout they’ve generated. 
  • Complaints: 
    Make a list of complaints and keep an eye out for them in your search results. Once an influencer amplifies customer concerns, they can be cemented as “expert opinion,” and your credibility can suffer longstanding damage.

11: Create a Crisis Management Workflow: 

Start by outlining the internal steps you need to take before releasing a public statement. Then assign stakeholders where relevant. For example:

Assess the situation

Hopefully your company has got some feet on the street to report back on your crisis with first-hand insights, but use media intelligence to understand the full scope of the communications landscape and all of the points you’ll need to address.

Assign duties within your team

When you’re engaged on multiple fronts, you’ll need to man various stations. Decide who will manage influencers, keep the executive team informed, serve as liaison to other key stakeholders (including partners, customers, members, etc.), and record every detail, action taken, external response, and resolution.

Identify key advisors

A PR crisis may require technical information or strategic insight that you’ll need to get from leaders in IT, accounting, HR, or elsewhere. Identify all relevant functions specific to a given crisis and how to contact them quickly.

Draft your statement

The head of PR may be responsible for doing this, or it may fall to the agency that the head of PR should already have on speed dial.

Initial review

It’s always a good idea to have your CMO review your statement (or the agency’s), as he or she will undoubtedly be asked to defend it.

Any statement you make during a time of crisis should be reviewed by counsel to assess its legal consequences and minimize damage should legal action be taken against the company.

CEO review

During a PR crisis, your CEO (likely your company’s primary spokesperson) must be kept in the loop.

man holding a presentation in front of an audience

12. Establish a notification system: 

Break down your audience, both internal and external, into key stakeholders and list the best channels to reach them. Chapter 3 explores in detail how to communicate with and engage your audience as you respond to a crisis.

13. Have as much written ahead of time as possible: 

Because social media moves so quickly, it can hurt your brand to wait for executive stakeholders to approve detailed statements. Having something pre-approved that acknowledges your awareness of the problem without saying too much will go a long way in putting your audience at ease. Don’t forget that how long it takes for you to get your initial response out could be a detractor’s next headline.

Here is a fill-in-the-blank statement that can be used in any number of situations:

A ___________________ at ___________________ involving __________________ occurred today at _________________. The incident is under investigation and more information is forthcoming.

Tweet this

14. Finalise key messages and update corporate talking points:

Once the worst is over—but before you reach for a beer and put it all behind you—you’ll want to craft a final word. Explain what your company learned from the crisis and how you’ve adapted processes, policies, or products accordingly. Remember, people will want to know you’ve taken action, not just paid lip service. You can then update any relevant company-wide talking points.

Once you prepare for PR crisis, you’ll be ready, if, when, and to what degree it may impact your company and brand. How your brand reacts to its community, audience, and detractors may have wide-encompassing repercussions. It’s hard to prepare for every contingency, so try to prepare for the ones you can by downloading our Media Intelligence for Crisis Communications ebook.

Crisis Q&A

Do brands of every size need to plan for a crisis?

It may be a side effect of the 24/7 news cycle and social media, but it seems like brand crises are coming at a quicker clip than they did a decade ago. And what differentiates a modern brand that recovers quickly from one whose crisis snowballs is—more often than not—preparation well before any hint of trouble. Since stress can run high during a crisis, having a crisis monitoring worksheet and ready plan of action can be a lifesaver. Wade in to read more.

Crisis communications planning has risen to the top of the priority list for many brands, as they watch the train wrecks that seem to occur on almost a daily basis.

Of course, no matter what a brand does, they can never know exactly what to expect or when a crisis might befall them. But it isn’t a good strategy to stick one’s head in the sand, pretending that your business is crisis-proof. Big or small, companies need to plan for a crisis in the event one hits.

“No matter what size company or client you work for, crisis communications needs to be integrated into your overall communications strategy,” says Matt Falso, director of brand strategy, Soteryx Corporation. “While large companies often have these plans baked into their overarching approach, smaller businesses may see them as an unnecessary expense. A crisis, however, can happen to any company—regardless of size.”

“Crisis communications planning is even more critical for smaller businesses because they can less afford the financial consequences of a significant crisis,” says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management and author of “Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management.”

And according to Dave Pidgeon, founder and CEO of Navigate Strategic Communications and former spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, it doesn’t take a lot to create a crisis for your brand.

“Bad accounting, an irritated employee, a customer who had an unfortunate experience, a municipal code violation, a misguided quote in an otherwise innocuous media story – they can all lead to greater public scrutiny of your business,” Pidgeon says. “And if you don’t know how to handle that scrutiny, the situation can get much, much worse.”

How can brands of all sizes be prepared?

Given that a crisis can happen at any time to any business, how should brands prepare in advance?

“The primary preventive tactic is maintaining a very positive online presence on all major social media platforms,” says Bernstein. “This creates a cushion of goodwill and also gives an organization an ear to the ground if negative information starts appearing online.”

Beyond maintaining a good reputation, companies need a plan.

“Being prepared with an established crisis communications plan can make a world of difference when communicating with the media as well as when sharing critical information with your employees,” says Falso.

And make sure to revisit the plan periodically.

“A crisis communications plan works as a living, breathing document,” says Pidgeon. “Don’t let it sit on the shelf unopened.”

And practice. “Avoid assuming what you did last year, or even last month, will work this time around,” advises Pidgeon.

“Actively practicing (simulating a crisis) is essential to being fully prepared,” agrees Falso.

Time is of the essence when responding during a crisis. If you’re not thinking ahead about what you’ll say—and who will say it—you can lose valuable minutes or hours, resulting in a lack of public trust.

Should you handle a crisis in-house or hire external consultants?

Bernstein says hiring a good crisis communications pro in-house can cost top dollar, which many smaller businesses can’t afford. “So, just as a small business would call on outside legal counsel, they can outsource functions such as crisis prevention and response.”

Pidgeon feels it’s best to have an in-house spokesperson. “If your spokespeople have built credibility and trust with communities and media sources, that trust and credibility are needed in a time of crisis.”

Whatever you do, don’t wing it, Pidgeon advises. “That’s a recipe for disaster,” he says.

And don’t address a crisis from afar. “Handling a crisis through written statements-only is an unintended invitation to the public and the media to scrutinize you further. It creates a perception you’re hiding or avoiding something. Being there in person builds empathy and is more conducive to building a relationship with both the public and press.”

crisis typewriter

Prepare for the Worst with a Crisis Communications Plan

“Always expect the unexpected” should be every communications professional’s mantra, yet more often than not companies appear blindsided by issues they should have seen coming (hint: using a crisis communications plan).

Extreme weather, for instance, is a predictable urgent issue. Yet, we frequently see companies caught off-guard and poorly handling customer service issues that stem from blizzards, flooding, hurricanes, and other hazardous weather conditions. While this extreme weather may randomly appear, the possibility of extreme weather, and its impact on your customers and team members, is entirely predictable.

A seasoned pro knows the value in developing and maintaining a playbook on how to address these issues, often in the form of a crisis communications plan. Your plan will not only save you from reinventing the wheel in seemingly endless fire-drills, but it could also be what stops an issue from becoming a full-blown crisis for your company.

While extreme weather is just one example, other recurring issues can regularly impact companies of all industries:

  • Website outages due to technical glitches
  • Delay in regular communications (i.e. monthly statements) because of unforeseen circumstances
  • Negative press articles
  • Issues related to team members, including workplace misconduct allegations
  • Issues related to the leadership team, including unanticipated departures or controversial statements
  • Social media issues, including inappropriate posts from brand accounts
  • Customer dissatisfaction due to product malfunctions

Any of these could become a crisis if enough momentum swells behind them and they are left unaddressed for too long.

It is your corporate communications team’s responsibility to envision any worst-case scenarios before they happen so that you can plan communications for all relevant stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, partners, and the general public) in a controlled and less time-sensitive environment.  

The first step in this process is a simple brainstorm. Picture every possible way that something could go wrong for your brand, and write it all down. With this list, you can then document how each individual stakeholder is impacted, and you then have what you need to start your playbook.

What to Include in Your Plan

Your crisis communications plan should detail everything you need to address an issue and, ideally, stop it from becoming a crisis. The exact format of your playbook can vary (here is a great template created by Meltwater), but common elements will include:

  • Team roles: Determine who is responsible for what during an issue or crisis management process. Clearly define what each individual is responsible for handling in an issue to ensure that no duties go unassigned, and clearly identify the appropriate approval chain for any messages. You should identify individual team members for each of these roles:
  • Social media
  • Media relations
  • Internal communications
  • Executive review—the CEO or another leadership team member
  • Legal and compliance (if needed)
  • Communications counsel
  • Department/subject matter leads
  • Quick response steps: With your team roles defined, list out the steps that should be taken in addressing your crisis

Other Considerations

  • Create communications templates: For each of the scenarios you brainstormed, craft various template communications for your multiple audiences. Use these as an easy plug-and-play format so that you can quickly fill in relevant details for your specific crisis and send to your audiences through the most appropriate channel. Plan communications for email, app alerts, your website homepage, social media, press releases, press conferences, and any other regular communications channels so you are prepared for any situation.
  • Establish corporate messaging and spokespeople: Keep an updated copy of your corporate messaging to ensure consistency in any word use or tone, and identify who will serve as spokespeople for various topics or issues.  

Ongoing Readiness

After you’ve faced your first issue, edit your playbook with your learnings and add in key details so that you are better prepared during your next issue.

Your crisis communications plan is a living document that you should constantly update as new potential threats are identified. Any time a competitor faces a crisis, make sure that your team is ready for a similar situation should it occur.

At a minimum, update your plan once a year to check for any team member changes or corporate messaging updates to reduce the likelihood of a last-minute scramble.

With your plan in place, you’re more likely to crush issues before they become a crisis, sparing your company from a potential downfall.

Next Steps

For a deep dive into how media intelligence can serve you before, during, and after a crisis — or better yet, help you avert it altogether — read our comprehensive ebook.