A guide to PR crisis management

8.18.20 / 8 min read

Effective PR crisis management starts long before a negative story begins to rear its head.

The best crisis comms work is that which is done before the crisis arises – and which foresees and heads off many of the potential problems that could occur.

It’s entirely unrealistic to imagine every negative story, social media post or reaction however, so you do still also need to be ready to react quickly if and when the time arises.

Excellent news scanning and crisis communications planning will put an organisation in the best possible position to respond appropriately, quickly and to stay ahead of the story to direct, manage, lead and, if necessary, seek to redirect the tone of the conversation.

Four vital tips for crisis communications

“Correctly managing a crisis is one of the most difficult and most important activities that PR teams are responsible for,” says one of Signal AI’s vice president’s in the Americas Jen Lutpon. “Ultimately, it is what keeps you up at night.”

Crisis management is a key topic for all communications and PR teams – and rightly so.

Jen led our recent PR & Comms Webcast: ‘Staying one step ahead of a crisis’, which provides four broad tips and tricks for crisis management.

They are:

  • Be prepared and avert crises with horizon scanning
  • Stay ahead of the story with real-time alerts
  • Learn from the mistakes and achievements of others
  • Examine how well you did

Horizon scanning

Horizon scanning means staying abreast of the news in regard to all of the themes, trends, legislation and competitor activity that could affect your business immediately or in the future – particularly those you may not have seen coming or in sectors that may not seem directly relevant.

It is the best way to spot potential issues for the business and help to prevent or alleviate future crises.

An example of this is explored in our whitepaper ‘Why proactivity is the key to managing a reputation’. A hypothetical automotive firm spots early on that new legislation and public mood is propelling people towards environmentally friendly vehicles and acts to stay ahead of the game.

Alerting the board to this allows the business to consider if decisions need to be made to shift the business model. While others may wait until a later date to start developing more green vehicles, the pre-warned firm can be ahead of the curve. This allows protection of the business – and therefore its reputation – and averts potential PR crises down the line in regard to it being a producer of high emitting vehicles.

Stay ahead of the story

Not all negative PR can be averted.

Staying ahead of the story means having the tools to monitor and sift the vast levels of relevant published output, news and views via traditional and online media, social media and broadcasts.

It needs to be done quickly and accurately to allow PR teams to assess the mood, decide what needs to be responded to and come up with strategies of how to do that.

Too many PR teams still rely on Google alerts or Boolean strings that are complex and difficult to update and manage, to an extent that ensures thoroughness and accuracy. AI solutions help to speed up and improve the process. That frees people to do the important work of deciding what to do with the insight provided rather than just trying to get hold of and understand it.

Staying ahead of the story really effectively can neutralise a PR blip to prevent it escalating to a crisis.

Learn from the mistakes and achievements of others

Keeping a watch on how competitors, or those in other industries, have dealt with crises and problems provides exceptional learning opportunities.

Digging down into not only what they did but how it was really received can help inform your strategies.

Sentiment analysis is vital for this to show not just vanity metrics around how much coverage was achieved, but how effective the coverage was in creating a positive reaction.

An example of this is seen below when considering how sentiment evolved towards Adidas across a 28 day period of heightened worldwide focus on the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the death of George Floyd.

The graph shows where positive sentiment towards the firm was at its height: At point A when it announced its most lucrative contract ever for a sportswoman – Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka. It then shows dips at points B and C before recovery.

Examine how well you did

Taking the time to examine and assess how well you, your team and company did in managing a PR crisis is vital to take forward learnings for the future.

This is about learning from mistakes and strategising how to avoid them in future, but also learning about successes. If a C-suite member emerged as a fantastic company spokesperson, for example, you’ll want to note it and use them again.

It’s vital to gauge and analyse the sentiment of coverage and reaction rather than just the amount and existence of it. It’s not just about whether your messages were used but how they were received.

Crisis communications: Why preparation is better than cure

Signal AI’s aforementioned whitepaper, ‘Why proactivity is the key to managing a reputation’, argues that preparation is far superior to cure when it comes to crisis communications.

Crisis management PR is sometimes unavoidable and necessary, but many situations can be avoided or minimised with early thought and action.

Our whitepaper’s author, Stuart Thomson, who has penned numerous PR books, says within it: “There are lots of excellent books, blogs and posts that consider the challenge of reputation management with examples of how best to cope when a crisis hits. But what many of these fail to do is take a step back and consider the steps that need to be taken to avoid a reputational challenge in the first place – and who it is who is responsible for developing the understanding necessary to make those steps.”

Stuart asserts that whatever actions an organisation undertakes should give thought to reputation management. It’s about considering how those actions could potentially be perceived, mitigating any potential negative outcomes and preparing in case of a PR backlash.

Dealing with a PR crisis: 8 steps

When prevention of a PR crisis has not been possible, effective management of the situation means taking swift and considered action.

Being on top of what is being said as soon as it is said enables this.

The right actions in a PR crisis can dampen the situation and quickly move the conversation in a more positive direction. The wrong actions can escalate it and significantly increase the damage.

Making the right decisions requires detailed knowledge of all that is going on to reduce surprises and allow measured and planned responses even when things are moving quickly. If you’re able to brief your company spokesperson on a new angle that is emerging on social media in the moments before a press conference, that allows vital thinking time in relation to a question that may arise from a journalist who has also spotted that line.

Our 8 tips on how to manage a PR Crisis effectively reiterates some of the advice already mentioned in our ‘Staying one step ahead of a crisis webcast’, as well as adding some new key points.

Managing a PR Crisis means:

  1. Staying ahead of the story
  2. Telling the truth
  3. Expressing genuine sympathies and making sure they get heard
  4. Informing your response using past mistakes of others
  5. Ensuring actions are taken and your organisation can report what it is already doing
  6. Being clear about what information you can share and why
  7. Preparing for crises ahead of time
  8. Doing a proper post-mortem to learn lessons.

We’ve already reviewed the importance of staying ahead of the story, reviewing the mistakes and successes of others, preparing ahead of time and examining how well you did.

The additional points are equally important.

In crisis management PR it’s vital to:

  • ensure all statements and responses remain truthful even where those truths may be difficult to share
  • say sorry where appropriate and then analyse how that apology is being received, adjusting and amending future statements and responses as necessary
  • act rather than just talking. This shows authenticity and integrity. Stakeholders, including customers, want to see you are not just paying lip service to an issue.
  • explain that there are some details you are waiting for or that there are some specifics you cannot share and the reasons why. This demonstrates that you are not being evasive or trying to hide things.

Further expert information on crisis comms

Our webinar ‘Getting your message out during challenging times’ includes thoughts from guest speaker Tim Cowen, who has led PR teams at Centrica and Royal Mail and is a former Evening Standard journalist.

Topics explored include:

  • Why saying nothing is not an option.
    The importance of getting frontline colleagues on board with messaging and to feel they’re being defended too.
    How social media has made everything in crisis comms faster and more urgent.

Also of interest:

Tools for effective crisis communications

Reducing the effect of a PR crisis and avoiding one altogether will be key focuses of all communications professionals.

Being tuned into what stories and issues may develop – and staying on top of issues that do arise – are your biggest tools for effective PR crisis management.

AI based solutions can sweep media outlets, the internet, broadcasts and social media for specific terms and return only valid results, understanding the difference between things like ‘apple’ (the fruit) and Apple (the brand).

It can also provide analysis and reports on sentiment to help you understand if your messages are being well received or if negative feeling is taking hold.

This kind of insight is invaluable for in-house communications teams who can help shape business decisions and organisational direction with strong insight, averting future crises, as well as providing the kind of direction and support required when crisis does strike.

For agencies, having the edge provided by AI, from pitch through to reporting, can help win and retain business.

For in-house teams it allows them to continually demonstrate their worth and value, not just via reporting, but in the constant trickle of information and direction it allows them to provide, before, during or after a potential crisis.