PR Crisis Management Planning: What You Need To Know To Survive9 min read
Does your business have a PR Crisis Management Plan?
If you don’t know, your firm probably doesn’t have one!
Always monitor the environment for potential a PR Crisis elsewhere to spread or have an unknown impact on your business, industry or the broader economy. This way you can decide how to address it and the potential fallout to stay ahead of the challenge.
As a marketer, your PR Crisis Management goals are to:
- Keep your customers, employees and local community safe;
- Minimize damage to your brand, reputation and profitability; and
- Act rationally without causing undue panic or fear
PR Crisis Management Planning Table of Contents
PR Crisis Management Definitions
In the age of social media and fake news, every marketing, PR and communications professional must be ready to handle a crisis at any time!
Whether the incident started due to something your organization did or due to public misinterpretation, your senior management team must respond quickly and calmly.
Further, your response must be truthful and avoid offering false hope. Otherwise your business risks further erosion of your brand and trustworthiness.
To clarify these differences, use these definitions:
- A BUSINESS CRISIS occurs when something unexpected creates a risk for your organization. It can be either internal or external. They can arise from a financial, personnel, organizational, technological and/or natural cause.
- A PR CRISIS, by contrast, has the potential to damage your business’s reputation and/or brand. So the public loses trust in you.
PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT is required when an issue can no longer be contained. So your organization needs to take action. Often after executives have waited too long to act. As a result, you face a larger problem requiring more resources and having a bigger impact on your organization’s bottom line.
PR Crisis Management Planning
Assume any business environment has potential risk from unknown factors.
A PR crisis can emerge from any of these actions, even if they don’t involve your business:
- Unexpected global, national and/or local factors such as political changes, economic swings, and/or weather events,
- Local, state and/or federal government issues and/or laws,
- Product problems including recalls, accidents and/or deaths,
- Business acquisitions, sales or consolidation,
- Lawsuits and/or legal actions,
- Customer defections, especially big or high profile ones, and/or
- Employee issues
How To Initially Assess PR Crisis Scope
Before running around with your hair on fire, assess the initial indicators of a PR crisis.Click To Tweet
Examine internal and external data related to:
- Third party news. Watch out for fake news especially on social media.
- Social media monitoring. Are there discussions or issues with your management, customers and/or competitors? Pay attention to when the tone and content of the conversation changes. Determine level of response needed.
- Internal data. Look for early signs of products or sales weakening.
Get an outside perspective. Check that you really have a PR crisis. Ask other colleagues.
As Scott Monty, veteran of early social media firestorms, advises:
“[W]hat’s more harmful than an epidemic is an infodemic: when unreliable information spreads far and wide. One of the most important things you can do is to seek out reliable sources of information.”
How To Assess the Initial Business Impact of a PR Crisis
Notify senior management and appropriate personnel across your organization. Ideally have this list in place and up-to-date before the crisis starts! Include electronic and voice contact information as well as personal contact information.
Include the following departments:
- Senior Executives,
- Human Resources,
- Marketing including PR, social media and/or communications,
- Technology including website support,
- Customer Service,
- Customer facing jobs like retail and sales,
- Investor relations (if your firm is publicly traded), and
- Outside PR or crisis management agency.
- Get key people up-to-speed,
- Determine scope of the impact, and
- Have authority to make decisions.
Create processes to speed up decision-making, communications, and implementation. During a PR crisis, you need to react quickly regardless of day and time including holidays or weekends. So establish how decisions will be made and what approvals will be needed.
Select a contact person to communicate updates and handle key contacts. This calms the public and reduces concerns since people feel they’re getting trustworthy information. Also, have plans to communicate with different constituencies.
Have a relationship with a crisis management or PR firm to support your internal crisis efforts. Ideally, make this decision before a crisis occurs to have time to vet a firm.
PR Crisis Management Checklist: How To Get What You Need
Use this PR Crisis Checklist to assess your organization’s potential risks. Also consider possible opportunities to reduce losses or increase other types of revenue.
- How will the problem change or restrict your business? Think short, mid and long term.
- What is the impact on related businesses? Are companies closing or modifying their operations up and down the supply chain? This means suppliers, distributors and logistics suppliers. Also assess the potential impact of local, regional and international inputs and buyers.
- Can you create opportunities that don’t require a physical presence? Can you extend your business directly to your audience?
- Will this issue have an impact on your entire business or only specific products and/or services and/or locations? Can you reassign your resources including employees to still necessary products?
- Can you extend your current products to new markets or buyer segments? How much work is involved? Do you have the marketing resources to create demand and sales?
- Can you reposition existing products to meet new or future needs? Further, can you do this with existing resources? Alternatively, can you use locally sourced inputs?
- Does the situation create new opportunities for products and/or services? Can you expand production to meet a sudden increase in demand?
- Will any of these changes create different pricing structures? If so, will they cover your fully loaded costs? If not, why are you doing this?
- How will you handle customers who have bought your product or service and want a refund due to the crisis? How you handle this has an impact on your customer experience and bottom line. Remember, refunds have real internal costs!
- Should you keep your current marketing plans across devices, channels, locations and customers in place? How will you determine what to pause, stop or change?
- Should you demand refunds from your agency and media partners? Can you reassign your resources to other projects or areas that need support but don’t have budget? Or can you apply these payments to future media buys? Check your options with Legal before calling your partners.
- How do you deal with events, conferences and other sales opportunities? Should you cancel your event? Are these sunk costs (meaning that you get no money back)? How will you create leads from other sources?
- How will you address your community and communicate with customers, suppliers and distributors? For example, with the coronavirus many companies have restricted travel. This has an impact on related travel businesses.
- How do you maintain relationships with your current customers? What type of offers and communications do you use to keep them from defecting?
- Assess your customers by product(s) purchased, purchase frequency and seasonality. Are your sales concentrated in a specific product, region or segment? How can you diversify your customer base and pipeline?
- How do you handle customers who cancel their contracts or just don’t pay because the crisis has destroyed their business? Do you proactively restrict credit to certain categories of customers?
- Assess sales shortfalls due to lack of product supply and/or customer cancellations. Be flexible by redirecting product and production capacity to match evolving demand.
- Look for potential new revenue sources.
- Implement electronic order and payment systems. (Hat tip: Deb Weinstein)
- Estimate increased costs due to employees inability to work.
- Determine the net change in expense base and efficiency due to the crisis. Include costs associated with employees working from home (aka: WFH).
- Will reduced sales activity due to restricted travel options yield savings?
- Are additional costs needed for technology and other remote services?
Employees and Human Resources
- Communicate regularly and honestly with management and employees. Gather information from reliable sources.
- Assess how to handle employees fairly and inclusively. Otherwise they may cause a worse PR problem!
- Improve technology capabilities to allow employees to work remotely based on their job. Provide smartphones, computers and related technology. Also, have phone trees and buddy systems to get information out faster.
- Allow flexible working arrangements for people who must go to your location.
What to Do After a PR Crisis To Prepare For The Future
Review your PR Crisis Management Planning process and documentation on a regular schedule.
Schedule a post-crisis assessment after each PR crisis. This allows everyone involved to determine what worked and what didn’t.
Update and improve your PR Crisis Management documentation based on real life activity. The key to future success depends on figuring out what and how you can do better the next time.
Ensure key staff know their responsibilities during a PR crisis. This includes knowing who to contact. So make updating your PR crisis list part of your HR process when people leave or join your firm. While this sounds obvious, like fire drills, staff may not consider this important until there’s an issue.
When a PR Crisis Happens: What 3 PR Experts Recommend You Do
Get a more well-rounded perspective on the issues by reading what top PR, marketing and communications professionals:
- Do in their own agencies, and
- Recommend for their clients.
Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks (@ginidietrich) Says:
For good internal communications during any PR crisis:
Actually communicate! People read the news and they hear what other organizations are saying and doing.
When employees aren’t told what’s going on, they conjure things up that are far worse than reality. And then they start talking to one another about it.
If you don’t yet have a plan, that’s OK. But tell everyone that.
When things change really fast. Just communicate changes as quickly as possible
“During a PR crisis, transparency, honesty, and empathy are key.” according to @GiniDietrich of @SpinSucks.Click To Tweet
In Gini’s opinion:
The biggest PR Crisis challenge is when organizations don’t plan for any potential changes! Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
Michelle Garrett of Garrett Public Relations (@PRisUs)
Start by viewing everything through the lens of “How will this crisis affect my plans?” Then determine what changes you need to make.
Communicate with your audiences often. Let them know you’re monitoring the situation and will take action if or as needed. Open, frequent communication builds trust during uncertain times.
George Stenitzer, Crystal Clear Communications (@GeorgeStenitzer)
Make sure your staff has at least one communications tool that every employees can use.
Communicate and provide relevant updates as news emerges. Continuously monitor the information environment to challenge or correct misinformation.
Take fast action when an employee, customer or visitor gets exposed to coronavirus. Your objective is to reduce broader exposure so time and calm communications matter!
- Get the facts, confirm them, and boil the message down to short sound bites of 7 seconds or 23 words or less.
- Communicate with your different audiences in the proper sequence. Start with the affected employee and supervisor, then their work team, then other employees and non-employees who work in or visited the building, and finally external audiences who are affected such as customers, investors and news media.
- The Catalyst
Wharton Professor Jonah Berger’s provides a playbook for marketing, PR and communications professionals. It will help you to reframe your communications so that your audience is more likely to listen to and act on it.
PR Crisis Management Conclusion
Whether it’s coronavirus or another PR crisis, as communications professionals, we can’t hesitate to act!
But first, stop and think through what you’re about to say, post and/or distribute publicly regardless of platform, device or format!
While you must communicate in a timely and transparent way:
Take the time to stop and think about what you’re about to say or publish.
Regardless of the pressure to go public!
Especially when using electronic devices where thoughts go straight from your brain to your fingers or voice without your brain!
Otherwise, you may make matters WORSE.
Further, as with any marketing or communications strategy:
Have a backup plan in case it doesn’t go as expected!
And once the crisis is over, go through and evaluate you and your team handled each aspect. Then document and update your PR Crisis Management Planning process.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 17, 2010, with the title “5 Steps to Planning for Effective PR Crisis Management.” It was significantly expanded and updated on March 13, 2020 to meet marketer’s needs as they applied to COVID-19. The article was again updated on November 10, 2022 for post-pandemic use.
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