Do you know how to deal with a PR crisis? 

When I was growing up I had no idea I would be a fireman (of sorts) one day. However, as someone in the PR industry, a large proportion of my role involves crisis management. As a result, I now put out fires regularly using time-tested processes and media monitoring tools.

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, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds. Over the years I have come up with a 10-step process that makes a PR crisis manageable.

Marc’s 10 Step PR Crisis Management Playbook

Step 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 step a few times.

Step 1: Take a deep breath. Close your eyes, and take five slow deep breathsClick To Tweet

Step 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.

Step 3: Investigate what happened. 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.

Step 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.

Step 5: LISTEN UP! 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?

Step 6: Decide on corporate position and messaging. 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.

Step 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.

Step 8: Get the word out. You’ve done your homework, got the buy-in on messaging, and have decided on where you will communicate your message.  It’s now time to get your message out there.

Step 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.

Step 10: Learn from the process. No one wants to see a PR crisis 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 crisis and will help you to efficiently manage your next crisis.

Optional Step 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.

Further Reading

Why we should be analysing the sentiment around our brand and campaigns

How to write a press release

How to create brand ambassadors with social media guidelines

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This blog on managing a crisis was updated 02/02/2018 to be more up to-date and relevant to readers.