October 6, 2022

How To Plan Ahead For a PR Crisis

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Peloton. Meta. Travis Scott. These household names have faced crises that demonstrate just how badly a disaster can impact reputation – and not just while the situation is unfolding. Less than 30% of corporate board members surveyed by Deloitte said their reputation recovered from a crisis in less than a year. The fallout can touch everything from sales and partnerships to employee engagement, productivity, employer brand, and hiring. 

Unprepared companies also can spend millions in mitigation and lose hundreds of millions in reputation and shareholder value. Consider Colonial Pipeline, whose CEO in 2021 paid hackers $4.4 million after an attack on the company’s network caused major fuel disruptions – and that’s only the cost of the ransom. 

Our PR crisis response veterans have supported clients through major disasters. Keep reading to dig deeper into their best practices aimed at helping you mitigate damages during a crisis, and communicate more effectively with those who matter most to your brand.

Planning Ahead: Develop a Crisis Playbook Before You Have To
Sure, the best way to manage a crisis is to avoid it, but given that’s not always realistic, setting up a crisis team and thinking through response plans – before you need them – are a must.

Step One: Crisis Scorecard & Mitigation Planning
Start by identifying all possible scenarios. Of the most common PR crisis situations in 2022, real-time social media issues such as trolls, angry customers, and disgruntled employees ranked #1, followed by fake content, workplace violence, lack of diversity and inclusion, and cybersecurity threats.

Criminal threats, ownership issues (ie: Elon and Twitter), lawsuits, natural disasters, and product defects are also possibilities.

Work with your PR team to map out the severity of a situation and identify steps to address it (ie: what’s the playbook for a high profile employee forgetting his pants on camera vs. United Airlines “re-accommodating” an elderly passenger, or worse). The best scorecards outline crises that fall across the following possible categories:

  • Allegation of wrongdoing or mismanagement by company or key leader
  • Competitor threat: allegation or commercial slight, patent or product infringement, poaching of key staff
  • Consumer complaints: product, services or customer support
  • Criminal or terrorist threats: key leadership relationships, operating in combat zones
  • Industry regulatory concern
  • Labor disputes, workplace injury or mistreatment
  • Litigation
  • Natural disaster: pollution or waste concern, supply chain or facility impact
  • Ownership concern or hostile takeover
  • Product or service defect & recall
  • Shareholder concerns
  • Stock performance or leadership selloff

Step Two: Brand Perception Monitoring
Avoid getting caught in the crosshairs by developing a routine reporting methodology that uses predictive analytics and social listening to identify crises in real-time.

Preventative weekly reporting is recommended to monitor the media and social landscape in order to get ahead of a potential crisis. But daily reporting is essential in order to stay on top of an evolving crisis so that messaging and strategy can be adjusted in real-time.

Step Three: Internal Communications & Stakeholder Chain of Command
Your internal communication plan is just as important as your external plan. Identify who should be involved across marcom, legal/compliance, and the executive team, as well as key external partners under NDA. Develop a plan that specifies who has to be informed and when, including how you’ll communicate as a company (e.g. slack, email, video messages, town halls, etc), and who will do so.

Employees can be your greatest advocates and set the tone for how your audiences respond. But you’ll need to provide the right resources to help them stay informed and respond appropriately.

Step Four: Spokesperson Training + Communications Plans
Identify your spokesperson and provide media training ahead of a crisis, so accurate information gets to the right people as quickly as possible. Official spokespeople should stick to the facts, avoid placing blame, taking sides, speculating, providing unnecessary commentary or minimizing the situation.

Develop templated crisis media plans with messaging and strategies that include:

  • When and how you’ll approach communication across platforms (print, online, TV, and social)
  • How you’ll communicate with the press
  • How to proactively engage reporters
  • Which reporters you can trust to write balanced stories
  • Which outlets, influencers, channels, and SEO keywords are important in the event of a crisis.

Keep your social team and other client-facing teams, including customer support, in the know. This ensures that consistent messaging is shared across all communications channels, and incoming inquiries are flagged and/or addressed appropriately.

It’s important to have unified communication and a single message across all channels. These front-line team members have a pulse on the customer conversation, and can provide insights to inform evolving messaging.

Make sure all employees are informed about:

  • Who is handling external communications
  • Who to contact if approached by a reporter
  • What’s appropriate to discuss (or not discuss) on social media–or, in some situations, in their personal lives.

While it’s critical to gather all the facts, you’ll also want to move as quickly as possible to ensure that you are the one to tell your story, rather than letting others tell it for you. If you haven’t contributed to the conversation by the time the first story appears, it can be tougher to get your messages across.

Step 5: Create a Monitoring Plan
Determine how you’ll keep an eye on the news during a crisis, and what you’ll measure. We typically monitor media and social volume, sentiment, topics, mentions from influencers, and key publications, and writers.

You also can conduct a paid media audit that includes looking at whether to pause or change direction on paid marketing campaigns (or events, speaking engagements, and so on).

Analyze your findings to help predict outcomes of subsequent situations. For example, we’ve been able to help clients understand things like typical news cycle lengths, or the impact of spokesperson commentary or certain media approaches.

Step 6: Build in a Debrief
Include a post-mortem meeting to determine lessons learned, and update your materials and approach based on your findings.

While crises can be unavoidable, investing the time in preparation can make for smoother sailing during troubled times, and prevent long-term damage to your company’s reputation.

Looking for a little more guidance? Check out our FAQ below!


How can companies proactively train their employees to recognize and avoid potential PR crises?

  • Implement regular training sessions that cover social media do's and don'ts, privacy guidelines, and scenario-based role-play to prepare your team for potential pitfalls. We’ve done these trainings for clients and can help you, too.
  • Create a culture of open communication where employees feel comfortable raising concerns about potentially harmful practices or content before they become public issues.

What role does customer feedback play in shaping PR crisis response strategies?

  • Customer feedback is like the canary in the coal mine. It can alert you to issues before they escalate into full-blown crises. Keeping an ear to the ground helps you adjust your strategies proactively.
  • Analyzing feedback patterns can help identify the root causes of recurring complaints, allowing you to address them at the source and communicate the improvements you're making to avoid crisis situations in the future. An analysis of conversations and interactions on your social channels -- through a customer service lens -- can provide the information you need to take preemptive action.

How can companies measure the long-term impact of a PR crisis on brand loyalty and trust?

  • Look at customer retention rates and engagement levels before and after the crisis. A dip might indicate a trust issue, prompting further investigation and remedial action.
  • Conduct surveys or focus groups to directly ask your customers about their perception of your brand post-crisis. Honest feedback is invaluable for understanding the true impact and strategizing next steps.

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